Norwalk, California, situated somewhat between L.A. and Long Beach, is home to MW Polar Foods, which started with an unspecified seafood item in 1976 and has since branched out into a spectacular array of canned seafood, vegetables, snacks, drinks and fruits. In my local market Polar products are shelved on the dollar aisle, and while some might sneer at me for stooping to use such a low-end product, I’ve found their fruits perfect additions to any number of desserts, particularly their ridiculously evenly shaped teeny-tiny strawberries that are infused with enough red dye to turn your nasal hairs pink. I like their cute little jars, too.
As a life-long patron and former employee of the public library system, I was delighted to discover the work of Gina Sheridan, whose wonderful book and blog, I Work at a Public Library, has provided me hour upon hour of fun and wonder. Sheridan’s pithy, off-beat, quirky accounts of the incidents and exchanges that take place in what she refers to as a “neutral place” range from the poignant to the hilarious and make for fascinating reading no matter who you are. What’s more, I was thrilled to find out that Gina is a former pupil and current colleague of my great friend Jeff Weddle, who is an associate professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama. Gina graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her life and work so I could share.
A bit about me: I grew up in a St. Louis suburb, the middle of five kids. I have an older sister, an older brother, and a younger sister and a younger brother. I’ve always found this sort of special. My mom was always trying to kill herself (and still hasn’t succeeded) so we grew up fast. The girl siblings made it out smart and happy, and the boys made it out alive but damaged. I got married at 19 because it meant a fresh start and it seemed like the thing to do at the time. We lasted seven years. My brain exploded at college as I learned more about the world and its occupants, and he was kind but couldn’t keep up. I moved to Savannah, GA for fun for a couple of years before graduate school in Tuscaloosa, AL. My first professional librarian position was in Fresno, CA where I met husbear and started I Work at a Public Library because I wanted to try out Tumblr and was in awe of almost every person I met at the library. Even though I’ve been writing since I was young, first bad poetry and then so many blogs! I never sought to be a published author; it was such a fluke how it happened.
You say you “curate” the stories, which I find a curious way to say you compile and edit the stories. Describe the process of submission to blog, in other words, the stories you receive, where do they come from (geographically), what are your criteria for acceptance, and while you say “Most are offered without comment …” what sorts of stories do you find need or deserve some sort of comment?
I love the word curate because I collect the stories from all sorts of places, not just the submission button on the blog. Sometimes I find a great story on a friend’s Facebook page. Sometimes it’s a story told in passing at work. Yesterday, one came by snail mail! Sometimes people will text or email me a snippet of a story and I have to carefully flesh it out for it to make sense and appeal to a general audience. Often it’s something I personally experience. But there are times I start typing it up and realize it’s not quite right, or won’t mean enough to anyone other than me. Those are the ones that are hard to explain. Many of the submissions I receive (perhaps 40% of them) are way off base, something I’ll discuss in another answer below.
The stories come from all over the world–I’m surprised how many submissions I get from people in Canada and Australia in particular. Most are from current or retired library workers, but I get some messages and stories from library users who have had weird or funny or touching experiences at the library.
I like to offer up the stories objectively, without comment or judgment for the most part. I do this so that readers can get a picture of events that actually take place without my opinions murking it up. However, the “bullies” tag is inherently subjective and a few others sprinkled here and there provide commentary on how I feel about the subject or situation. When I share a link to Facebook, it often accompanies a sentiment. There are times I can’t help myself.
Do you find that people are confused by the things you (and I) find amusing about library patrons? Do you ever get any feedback from people who find the blog offensive in any way, for instance condescending?
99% of the Tumblr interactions are overwhelmingly positive. The same is true of the interactions on the associated Facebook page and Twitter feed. There have been very few negative comments or reactions. While I try to avoid my own book reviews, I did catch a few of the IWAAPL book that expressed things like, “I could’ve written this.” or “This could’ve happened anywhere, not just a library.” or “What is so special about these stories?” or “Libraries are WAY worse than this watered down bullshit.” Those sorts of things. And I agree! But that’s what I find so cool about the subject. It’s not unique. I love paying attention to my surroundings and the people I meet. Sometimes you look up and see something brilliant in the mundane. Not everyone does, though. I think most people who don’t get it just stay away or keep quiet–in any case, I don’t hear from them!
Yes, the characters are colorful and often entertaining, but what do you mean by “their jackets are dusty, subtext confusing, and even if they don’t fit in anywhere else in life, all of them belong at the library.” I think this is charmingly intriguing, and would like as full an explanation as you feel you can provide.
The American public library is one of very few places in the world where everyone is truly welcome. As long as you abide by a few simple (common sense) rules, you can stay from open to close, you don’t have to make a purchase, no one will ask for your membership card or judge what you are reading (or not reading). All of this means that public libraries attract all sorts of people, of course. And this includes employees! Some of the quirkiest people I know are librarians. Librarians aren’t just cardigans and margaritas, people!
Here’s a question I’m sure you get all the time: Where did you get the idea for I Work at a Public Library?
I’ve been blogging for many years. Blogs are a free and easy place to collect things and find community. I used to have a “Quotes of the Week” blog where I shared funny things I heard throughout the week, with a complete lack of context. I also have “Here, Hold This” which contain iPhone photos of my husband holding miscellaneous items. IWAAPL was a place I could collect the library stories that amazed and touched me. Plus, I wanted to try out the new-at-the-time platform called Tumblr. I didn’t realize it would become popular and I never imagined it would turn into a book deal. Several years in, an agent contacted me on Twitter and it was only a couple of months later that a publisher offered us a contract. It really was the right combination of people at the right time–I call it a fluke because there are so many other blogs out there with way more readers than I have.
Sure, your stories illustrate the “quirkiness” of humanity, but what else? What else do they have to say about the human condition, particularly in terms of the thirst for knowledge, or the need for information?
Some people come to the library because they don’t have many other places to go, or people to talk to. Some are indeed thirsty for knowledge and aren’t at all afraid to ask any question under the sun. People feel pretty safe at the library and library workers love to be busy and helpful answering questions others may scoff at. But working with the general public can be difficult at times. When someone is exhibiting poor behavior, I see it as a challenge–how can I deescalate the situation? How can I smooth things over so the person and the staff member is happier than when I found them? I tell my staff, “Start with yes and always err on the side of customer service.” That seems to work pretty well, but some people carry their baggage with them everywhere and nothing helps.
The biggest surprise to me is the response from library workers, young and old, just starting out or retired, professional or paraprofessional. The stories give them hope, validation, humor they can relate to, nostalgia. Radical librarian Sanford Berman and I are pen pals because he happened upon my book! He sends me clippings of old newsletters and sends me notes on the backs of grocery lists. I cherish our correspondence very much.
Be honest and tell me you do get submissions that you consider inappropriate for your blog. What sorts of submissions would fall under this category? Accounts of child abuse, perhaps? Criminal activity of other sorts?
Nothing that dramatic! The worst sorts of submissions I receive have a huge slant toward the negative. Some people just don’t “get” the vibe I’m going for. They want to vent about “crazy people” or their co-workers or boss. These are stories of poor customer service. Some are mean-spirited or could be perceived that way. That’s not cool with me (and frankly, it’s boring).
What sort of reception has your blog received among librarians? Are you a celebrity at conventions? (Weddle once told me that librarians will hold meetings/conferences at the drop of a hat, and as a former librarian, I know he’s right.)
No! I’m so not a celebrity. There are so many rockstar librarians actually making a difference in the industry–Jason Broughton, Taneya Gethers, David Lee King, Scott Bonner, Melissa Jacobs, Patrick Sweeney. These guys are change agents and library advocates, I’m just a blogger!
Is “Cuckoo Carol” a real person, or is she an amalgamation of assorted nuts you have known? (I suspect the latter, btw … )
Carol is a real person named Meg. She was such a character who kept me on my toes. The nickname came from her–“Just call me cuckoo!” she once said to me. When the book was coming out, I gave her a call at the library where I knew her (because I knew she’d be there–she was there for 10+ hours per day. I even knew where she’d be sitting so they could go get her and tell her she had a phone call). Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: “Meg, it’s Gina, the librarian who used to work there. Do you remember me?”
Meg: “No! Is this a sales call?”
Me: “No, no, nothing like that. Listen, I remember you fondly. Anyway, I’m writing a book about funny things that happen at the library. You’re in it. Are you cool with that? Do you want to read the stories ahead of time? You are basically going to star in a chapter.”
Meg: “That’s the story of my life!”
And she hung up.
You confess that most of the stories are in your book, I Work at a Public Library. How has the book been received?
About 75% of the stories in the book were new (never published on the site). I just checked: the site has 850 stories to date! The book is not at all a runaway bestseller or anything like that. It’s a great bathroom read and makes a good gift for library lovers and book people. I’m proud the book is out there in the world.
How do you view the role of librarians in society now? Petty bureaucrats or guardians of the public trust?
Librarians of today are space makers, community teachers, innovators, change agents, information helpers. We help people find jobs, get their mind off their troubles, learn to read, learn to love to read, and we offer free classes and lectures and performances. In St. Louis during the Ferguson turmoil, both protesters and non-protesters felt safe coming into the library to find some respite, get a drink of water, charge their cell phones, use a computer, etc. It’s a neutral place that is much needed today.
At first, I was trying to buy Walker’s Drive-In; I really wanted that place badly. I’d become such a fixture in there, I could feel my personality taking over, and it seemed only natural to get it, but the deal didn’t work out, so I started looking around for a place to put Sartin’s, or rather Sartain’s, since my last name is French, and I wanted to get into classic French cuisine. I went to Blockbusters in Castlewoods to drop off a movie, and I saw the Little Caesars next door was for sale. I just looked at it and though I could do my own pizza place. So I called the guy, Johnny Solomon, who owned all the Little Caesars and Popeyes in the area. He said he wanted $50,000 for the place, I offered $30,000, he came back with $35,000, and that was it. I started with $35,000. My dad loaned me the money out of his house equity. This was 2000. We opened February 7, 2001.
I decided I was going to open a pizza place, and when I realized I could do that, what with the casualness of the atmosphere, I realized I could simply be who I wanted to be and not worry about cutting my hair or what clothes I wear and putting off the customers. I decided I would make the theme of the place the music of the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the blues, the jam scene of the Sixties and Seventies because I had to be in there a hundred hours a week and why not enjoy myself while I’m there, hang up the pictures I like on the wall, almost make it like my college dorm room. It was almost accidental, how it all came together. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was 30 years old. I had tried the insurance business; my dad and his brothers were very successful in it, and somehow that’s what I figured I’d always end up doing, but I just didn’t like it. It’s not that it’s a bad business, it just wasn’t for me. I was an artist; I needed to write, paint, sing, play, cook, and that’s what I needed to do to be happy. My Dad got behind me, and I’ll never forget that. That was a big deal, it meant a lot to me. He had the money to get me started at the time. He wasn’t wealthy when he was growing up and had to work to earn everything he got, all the brothers did, so he wasn’t going to just lay it out there for me. But this seemed like a safe thing; if it failed, it would sting to lose $35,000, but not change his life.
And it went off like a rocket. I think people wanted something real. Also, there wasn’t another gourmet pizza shop in Jackson at the time. I don’t think at all. We made everything from scratch, had some great music playing. It helped that we were next door to a Blockbusters at the time, which was before Netflix and all that. I had two guys in the kitchen, and I took some of the recipes that I knew from Walker’s, like the crawfish bisque and a bread pudding, you know the bread pudding that Miss Hazel baked and I would watch her. I took a little bit of something from everywhere I worked, brought it to the table and went to my guys and said, “Alright, let’s do this.” The recipes have changed up since then. The pizza dough now is nothing like it was back then. Now it’s a 300-year old French artisan recipe. We used everybody who was there and pulled upon their knowledge and experiments. Over the years I changed things to make them better, particularly the pizza crust, which I wasn’t happy with in the beginning. We sold a lot of pizzas and people loved it, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. I think in retrospect it was really the ovens, not the recipes, so now that’s why I have brick ovens in every location. I changed up the recipe and moved forward.
We moved into Hal & Mal’s in ’02. Malcolm would come into Soulshine at Castlewoods for some reason, and you didn’t see him that often outside the city limits. We started talking, and I kept thinking about it because I often hung out at Hal& Mal’s, thinking there was room there for a Soulshine. They weren’t using that back room all the time, and so I said, “Hey, man, we’ll open up a Soulshine at Hal & Mal’s. He loved the idea. Hal and Charly didn’t like the idea, they didn’t have anything against us, they just saw trouble coming, and they were right. My first idea was to pay rent and have the bar in there, but you can’t buy two liquor licenses under one roof, so I said how about I don’t pay any rent, you sell the liquor, and I’ll keep a crowd in this room for you. I’ll make it worth it to you just for me to be here and you can sell all the alcohol you want based on my customers. And that was okay, but it still wasn’t worth it for both parties.It didn’t make sense. Then there was a lot of partying going on, and that’s really what made it fail. I learned a lot of lessons. I pulled out of there after being mugged for a third time in Jackson. My car was broken into, I was losing money and on top of that, I just wasn’t sure what I was doing and everybody was partying. There were other factors, too, but it might have worked if I’d known what I was doing, but if I’d known what I was doing, I’d never have gone there to begin with, nothing against Hal & Mal’s.
Anyway, I decided to go out to Highland Colony Parkway because I could see it all going there. I could see the future. We were the first restaurant out there. I signed a lease in ’04, we opened in ‘06. It took a year and a half. I just knew that’s where the white-collar world was headed, you could see it happening. There was nothing there, just this one little center that I’m in which is a big development now. But I could just see it coming. I believe in the township; I thought it would be cool to live there, like being in Belhaven in the Fifties. I could walk to the grocery store and this and that. So I got there, and it was too soon. I lost my ass for a little while. Once again, I really didn’t know what I was doing, I just had a great idea and I could talk to people and put out good food, make sure the place was clean, but when the business shuts down, when you’re through serving people, when all the food it put up, there’s still a lot of work to do, in the office, at the bank, with your attorneys, whoever it is, and I didn’t know anything about it. And what’s maybe even worse, I didn’t want to know anything about it. I just wasn’t interested in it.
Really, I’m just a glorified bartender at forty-six, and that’s alright with me. I’m not special; I just feel like I had a dream, and I was willing to lay it all on the line to either lose it or end up ultimately happy. I was willing to lose everything because I was literally just miserable. As an artist, you know that if you don’t create, you’re miserable. I had to create in some shape or form. A couple of years into that store, we just weren’t where we needed to be. That area still hadn’t developed yet. We got there too soon. So that’s when I went to Porter & Malouf and asked them to be my partners, to back me and help me with the business end. I’d been going out to Tim Porter’s house cooking pizzas in a brick oven at parties, so I went to them and said, “I need help.” They love me and they love the place, and they decided to do it. When I realized how backed up I was, it turned out to be a substantial investment, which surprised both me and them, but they were in. They stepped up to the table, and we became partners. That was 2008, and we’ve been together ever since.
Once we got some organization, the business really took off; we caught up on taxes and bills that had me behind the eight ball. The story was that I moved the Hal & Mal’s location to Highland Parkway, which was the way I spun it to the press, but that was bullshit because I was just a failure there. I shut it down, but I knew what I was going to do in Ridgeland, so I spun it off to the public as “We just had to get out of Jackson.” We eventually took off in Ridgeland, and it’s been great ever since. We moved from Castlewoods to Old Fanin, then we moved out Lakeland Drive again, now we’re out there in a big place right on Lakeland Drive. It’s done really well, and I’m really pleased with it. Those people out in the Reservoir community have been eating Soulshine pizza for fifteen years. They’ve been really good to me. I grew up out there.
When I first opened the original location in Castlewoods, it was just strictly a to-go Little Caesars spot. My mother, my sisters and I went in and painted and made it cool. I put the stereo in, took all the Little Caesar’s stuff down, played music over the speakers in the kitchen and then I decided to put in a dining area. People kept saying that they needed a place to sit and the bay next door in the center where we opened was available, so I got it, put tables in there, built a little makeshift bar, put in a few TVs, and I’d actually bartend and wait on every table myself. And everybody who came in, most of them I knew, had known them for years and years, and if I didn’t know them, I got to know them really fast. It was a magical time. I was doing what I believed in and that was really all that mattered. The people liked the food, they liked the music; they liked the way they got treated. It was all about service, and it was all about art, expression, and I didn’t think about much else. I still don’t think about much else. That’s why I have partners. You have to worry about it, you have to get involved, and they push me to get more involved, but it’s hard to get anyone who’s forty-six years old, ADD, an artist a musician, writer and songwriter to sit down at a computer and go through a P&L. It’s hard for me to do because I don’t have a natural interest in it; I just make sure it gets done.
Why Oxford? There are a lot of reasons and one of the reasons is you have to get your partners to buy into it, but my partners are Ole Miss guys, and I knew they’d like it. Everybody wants to do something in Oxford, but what most people don’t realize is that Oxford really isn’t Oxford unless a ball game is going on, at least when it comes to retail. Everybody’s there for whatever big occasion is going on, but on a Tuesday in July, what are you going to do? It’s better now that people are moving there to retire. This coming April we’ll have been there for four years. The anniversary is April 20th (4/20). I opened it up on that date on purpose. We didn’t have our kitchen quite ready, but I opened up and served hot dogs that night so people would come in and drink and our anniversary would be 4/20. That makes it really easy for me to remember, because I never remember dates, and the number spans the culture of Soulshine. But the Oxford location has been fabulous, has kicked butt. When we cleaned up the floor of that location, stripped off the years of filth that had built up, we discovered that the site was once the location of one of the first Kroger’s in the state. It took my breath away. I’ll never forget looking at that and thinking wow this is history here. I’m a history major, and any time I can put in a Soulshine, and I only have four, I strive to keep that historical significance if possible, that feeling of realness, I don’t want them all to be alike. I’m always torn over how many I’m going to have and keeping it real, not being a sell-out.
The music is still relevant, and there’s still good music that comes out. You’re always going to have people listen to that kind of music; it might not be the masses, but the music is still there. The music is timeless. I didn’t call it “artisan pizza” back then; I didn’t call it anything. It was just Soulshine, and it still is. I don’t like to call it anything else. It’s always going to be Soulshine pizza, and now we’re making the switch to stone-baked. As I’ve gotten older, I’m not Mr. Detail still, but I’m also striving to get better. To be up where we need to be, I felt like we needed to take the cooking method to another level, to another tier, and that’s what we’re doing this year with the ovens to match everything else, which seemed to be so perfect. And I felt like you look on the internet now and you see brick-fired, coal-fired, wood-fired and felt like we needed to do that. And we have; we have a brick oven in Oxford and Nashville, and we just installed one in Flowood last week. All I have to do now is to install one in the Ridgeland store, and it will take a couple of weeks before we do that. I feel like that gives me the confidence to move to another fifteen years and look up when I’m sixty-one and say, “Yeah, okay. What’s next?”
If I had to look back on life, the last fifteen years of my life and the hardships I’ve gone through, from divorce to being broke, broke, broke, somehow I dug in and made it happen Soulshine has meant so much to me. It wasn’t just a restaurant that I opened up that could fail or be successful. It’s my life on the walls. Everything means something to me, the customers will always mean something to me, the music, everything. It meant more to me than money or my perceived success. But ultimately, in the end, taking care of the people and what I believe in paid off for me down the road. I consider myself a success now. I still think I’ve got a lot of room to get better, and I think that’s what drives me a lot, too, that I’m never satisfied; not with me, or the business or whatever. I’m satisfied that I’m living the life I’ve always wanted to live in certain ways, but I’m competitive. I’ve always been athletic, and I was out there playing tennis until I was forty and wanting to win.
So I think my competitive nature pushes me. I wasn’t going down, and I wasn’t going to let anybody take me down. I also felt like I owed it to the people not to give up; the people who came in there, the people who supported me and the people who worked for me, who had jobs. There were many times when I could have come in on a Monday and said to hell with it, it’s not worth it anymore. That happens all the time in the restaurant business, people just give up. But I’ve never let it go, and I still won’t. It’s me not letting go of myself, which is a big part of my identity and who I am. Sometimes people say your job should not be who you are or whatever, but I turned my job into who I was. I sell myself. When you open up a restaurant, people are going to come see you because you are who you are and it’s about you, but after they’ve eaten there enough times, maybe had a bad meal or two, and you’re having trouble, they just quit coming. They’ll be there to hug you when you close, but the food has to be good, too. And it has been. I’ve never been quite satisfied with it, but I doubt if I ever will be.
I decided to open a Soulshine in Nashville because my oldest daughter lives there, and I knew after being remarried and having two more daughters, I wanted them to be raised together. So we moved there after we opened in 2011, in Midtown near Vanderbilt. It’s a killer place; we have a rooftop patio with a stage up there. The Who’s Who list of legendary musicians and current stars who sit in there with our Soulshine Family Band is very deep. Once I was singing, and I look up and there’s Steve Tyler, for instance. Another time I’m standing in there around Halloween. I see this cat and I’m thinking, “Is that Billy Gibbons or is this dude in costume?” Well, it was him. This stuff happens all the time. I’m floored all the time by who walks in and tells me, “This place is cool, man, Nashville needed something real.” Maybe that’s what I want to have on my tombstone:
Brother Chris Sartin lies here.
“He kept it real”
“That realm is best and most stable which is ruled in accordance with God’s will alone,
and the worst and weakest is that which is ruled arbitrarily.”
Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church (FPC) is a prime example of stability. It is located at 1390 North State between Pinehurst and Belhaven Streets. The current church, which opened in 1951, began its history 114 years before at the corner of N. President and E. Capitol Streets in Mississippi’s first state house building. Greater Belhaven’s only church was organized on a Saturday afternoon, April 8, 1837 by the Rev. Peter Donan and four persons: Mrs. Margaret E. Mayson, Mrs. Susan Patton and Mr. and Mrs. John Robb. There was a pastor (Rev. Donan), but no elders for two years, no deacons for six years nor an individual house of worship until 1845. In its first two years of existence, the church had but three new members. (1)
The State of Mississippi owned considerable land in the downtown area of Jackson in the early 1800’s. It made land available to religious denominations in the vicinity of Smith Park and First Presbyterian purchased a tract a bit north and east of the original designations at the corner of Yazoo and North State Streets. Its first home edifice was erected on this site in 1845-46. Somehow, it escaped the fiery ravages of General W.T. Sherman 18 years later and was razed in 1891. It was replaced by a small red brick building in 1893 (left) which served the congregation until the opening of the present structure in 1951. The final service in the old church was preached by Belhaven College President Dr. Guy T. Gillespie on August 26, 1951. (2) (3) (4) (15)
The land on which the church rests today (Hinds County MS parcel number 13-38), was owned by a group of developers in 1925. These were early Jacksonians S.S. Taylor, C.E. Klumb, S.K. Whitten Jr., W.N. Watkins and H.V. Watkins. This group sold the land on December 4, 1925 to W. N. Cheney, R.S. Dobyns, Carl L. Faust, W.E. Guild and Stokes V. Robinson. The Pinehaven Realty Corporation purchased the property from this group on March 1, 1927 for $12,700. (5) (6) (7) For the much of the following 23 years, Pinehaven Realty Corporation maintained the land where the church sits today. A single dwelling and out building were shown on the 1925 Sanford Fire Insurance map. The majority of the land between Pinehurst and Belhaven Streets was vacant and remained so until purchased by First Presbyterian Church on September 20, 1950. Prominent Jacksonian and church member Chalmers Alexander was instrumental in this transaction. (8) (17)
According to Jacksonian Judge Swan Yerger, much of this north end of the 1300 block of north state was a field which served as a softball diamond for the older Power School boys who were enrolled in the old Power School on Pinehurst. The spent their recess and many hours after school on this diamond. Since the inception of the church in 1837, First Presbyterian has had only 12 permanent senior ministers. The tenures shown below do not include interim or guest preachers.
Rev. Peter Donan – 1837-41
Rev. S.H. Hazard – 1841-42
Rev. Leroy Jones Halsey – 1842-48
Rev. Halsey built the first church sanctuary
Rev. Isaac James Henderson – 1849-53
Rev. L.A. Lowery – 1853-55
Dr. John Hunter – 1858-95
Dr. James Buchanan Hutton – 1895-1939
Dr. R. Girard Lowe – 1940-52: When this man knelt to welcome little children to Sunday School, he was a giant.
Dr. John Reed Miller – 1952-68: Dr. Miller was active in missions and in 1962, led the church in founding a Winter Theological Institute which was continued as Reformed Theological Seminary. For 16 years his sermons were broadcast on radio and beginning in the early 1960’s, the morning worship services were televised.
Dr. Donald B. Patterson – 1969-83: During Dr. Patterson’s ministry Twin Lakes Conference center was established near Florence and he served as chairman of the steering Committee that formed the Presbyterian Church of America. The PCA was Founded in 1973 and is focused on the infallibility and historicity of the Scripture and the Westminster Standards. According to Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of music and media, “We distinguish ourselves by these tenants.”
Dr. James M. Baird – 1983-95: Dr. Baird gave leadership to three new building programs, popularized the Church’s TV ministry and was instrumental in involving the church’s Mission Mississippi movement.
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan, III – 1996 – 2013: The son of an eighth generation ruling elder, Dr. Duncan recently resigned his pastorate to take over the position of Chancellor of the Reformed Theological Seminary. (1)
The Rev. David Strain took over the responsibilities of pastor in early 2015. Since that time several other worthy churchmen have helped fill the pews on Sunday morning. Today’s original sanctuary was opened Sunday, September 2, 1951 with the first service preached at 7:30 p.m. by interim pastor Dr. Albert Sydney Johnson. Additions to the original building have been the Lowe Fellowship Hall in 1956 which included additional Sunday School space, Westminster Hall in 1986 and Miller Fellowship Hall which contains the music suite, choir suite and kindergarten. A study center is located on the northeast side of the church which includes a gymnasium and three stories of Sunday School space. The present sanctuary was expanded in 2005-07 and currently seats 1,380. (2) (15) Since its inception 176 years ago, Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church has been housed in but three permanent buildings in three locations. It has been served by 12 elected ministers, for an average of just under 15 years each. This consistency is proof of the stability to which Zwingli alluded and is testimony of the continuity and permanence of this institution.
“And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church;
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
On July 10, 1950, while the present sanctuary was under construction, the church cornerstone, which dates from 1891, was transported from the old building on Yazoo Street to the left side of the new church’s front door. Dr. Girard Lowe oversaw the insertion of documents pertinent to the time. These included a bible, a church history, the church roll, various bulletins, a list of major actions leading to erection of the new building, names of the building committee, a roster of the major contributors up to that time, the departmental leaders and daily newspapers chronicling the event. (9)
The mission of First Presbyterian Church is that which is the answer to the question posed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is man’s chief end?” Man’s chief end and the mission of the church is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Today’s church is composed of over 3,100 members, 2,550 of whom are resident members that represent 1,375 families. Many currently live in the Belhaven neighborhood. There are 105 staff members including those at Twin Lakes Conference Center. The church is governed by a 70 member Session which is made up of elders. The minister’s role is to provide spiritual leadership. Property and care of the church is done by deacons. Ministers belong to the Presbytery. Major decisions are normally made by the Session with senior ministers selected by the congregation. Early growth of the church was overseen by its senior pastors and pioneer Jacksonians such as the Power, Williford and Wells families, Judge Julian P. Alexander, Bob Cannada, George Lemon Sugg and R.E. Kennington. Many leading elders and youth leaders have also contributed to church growth. (2)
“Those who have arrived at very eminent degrees of excellence in the practice of an art or profession have commonly been actuated by a species of enthusiasm in the pursuit of it.”
The Presbyterian ministry throughout its history, which dates back to the Reformation, has been shaped by the knowledge of Christian faith and the principles of the history which surrounds it. Since the Reformation church leaders have placed a high premium on the education of its ministers and laity. A primary source of this knowledge is the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). The RTS was started in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 by five men, four of whom were elders in First Presbyterian Church. Its purpose is to train for the ministry based on a high view of scripture and historic Westminster standards. With ancillary campuses in Orlando, Charlotte, Dallas and Washington, DC, it offers advanced degrees in bible studies, missions and family counseling. (10) Belhaven University has received significant support from FPC for a number of years.
A thriving institution today, Belhaven experienced some fallow years in the early and middle 1900’s involving its endowment and accreditation. In spite of the heroic efforts of its third president Dr. Guy T. Gillespie, the school struggled to maintain its viability. The designation of the college as a co-educational institution in 1954 helped the situation but it was its transfer by the Synod of Mississippi Presbyterian Church in the United States to the Belhaven College Board of Trustees in 1972 that ensured its modern independence. FPC elders serve on the College’s board and significant support is provided by the church. (11) FPC has historically supported private academies which base their mission on Christianity and character. Chamberlain–Hunt Academy in Port Gibson has a history that goes back to 1830 at Oakland College in Rodney. Founded as a military school, its fortunes waxed and waned through the years and were quite low in the mid 1990’s due to decreased enrollment. In 1996, members of the First Presbyterian church in Jackson and French Camp Academy in Choctaw County–in which the church also has an interest–purchased from a local bank the historic buildings, over 200 acres of land and the school’s educational equipment. This purchase ensured the viability of the Port Gibson facility at that time. (12)
Twin Lakes Conference Center near Florence was obtained in 1970. It serves as a summer camping facility in warm weather months and an events center the balance of the year. Over the years millions of dollars have been invested in this first class facility which is available for rental by outside groups. (13) FPC is youth oriented beyond Twin Lakes and its regular ministry. It supports the neighborhood Christian Center in the minority community which emphasizes Christian ethics, academic tutoring and breaking the chains of poverty. (2) Other outreach programs include work with Mission Mississippi, world missions, campus student groups and assistance in starting new churches within the PCA movement. The First Presbyterian Day School was established in 1965 and is located in Miller Hall on Pinehurst Street. The day school contains grades k-6 and currently has a student body of about 650. It involves normal school curriculum, which according to Dr. Wymond, “is based on a Christian and world life view.” It is designed so that the school and church complement each other. While this school can present some traffic challenges when taking in and letting out, it greatly strengthens the character of the neighborhood and is an attraction to numerous young families, many of which have remained in Belhaven after their children finish the sixth grade. (14) (2)
Let us not cease to do the utmost so that we may incessantly go forward
in the way of the Lord;and let us not despair of the smallness of our accomplishments.”
When asked of the church’s future plans, Dr. Wymond stated “the First Presbyterian Church is always looking for opportunities to serve and preach the gospel. He further added, “No new projects are scheduled at present except to help the city. We are here for Jackson and as an institution to anchor the neighborhood, to conduct bible studies in the Mid Town neighborhood and be helpful and supportive of the church.” (2) On a rainy Sunday morning on the first day of October 1950, Billy Harvey, age 11, stood before the 400 member congregation in the little brick church on the corner and accepted Christ as his personal savior. He held a bible given to him by his parents and a Shorter Catechism provided by the church. Dr. Lowe asked the congregation to accept him into church membership and, standing, they agreed. Looking back through the prism of 63 years he would joyfully do so again. One hundred and seventy six years ago a pastor and four early Jacksonians met in a statehouse in a tiny city only 15 years in existence. They planted the seeds of a great church and a monument to their faith.
Today the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson rests firmly on its foundation, its steeple soaring toward the heaven we aspire to and towers over the memories of old Power School to the south on State Street and the rambling Green Apartments to the north. It surveys to the west what was at its construction the Hederman home at Marshall Street, the beautiful Vaughan Watkins house at Webster and Beth-Isreal Cemetery in between, ever facing east. Its mission remains the glorification of God. It is not moving to the suburbs. It is not changing its doctrine. It is not going away. Like Peter’s rock, it represents a hallmark of stability and is grounded in the inspiration of its purpose belonging to all as a beacon of faith, a citadel of strength and a cornerstone of our neighborhood.
Bill & Nan Harvey
(1) Church history from web site
(2) Interview with Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of Music and Media, (09/30/13)
(3) Historic marker, NW corner of Yazoo & State Streets
(4) FPC archives
(5) Hinds County deed records, book 174, page 22, (12/04/1925)
(6) Hinds County deed records, book 190, page 284 (03/01/1927)
(7) Hinds County deed records, book 676, page 87 (09/20/1950)
(8) Jackson city directories 1930-50
(9) Program, Laying of the Cornerstone, FPC, 07/10/1950
(10) Reformed theological Seminary, Internet Wikipedia, (09/04/2013)
(11) Gordon, James F., Jr., A History of Belhaven College 1894-1983, Jackson, MS Belhaven College (1983)
(12) Chamberlain-Hunt and French Camp Academies web sites
(13) Twin Lakes Conference Center web site
(14) Mission Statement, FPC Day School, A Kingdom School, Established 1965
(15) Jackson Daily News, Sunday 8/26/51
(16) Conversation with Judge Swan Yerger (09/29/13)
(17) Sanford Fire Insurance Company map – 1925
(A) Thanks are extended to Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of Music and Media at First Presbyterian Church for his kind contribution of time to explain much of the background of today’s church
(B) Appreciation is extended to Rev. Brister Ware, minister of Pastoral Care for his efforts to coordinate permission and approval of this article
(C) Appreciation is extended to the senior pastor and others associated with the governmental structure of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson for their support and approval of this article.
Belhaven University has been around for a little over 120 years – longer than the neighborhood in which it resides and only five years removed from the beginning of neighboring Millsaps College. The college began as a girl’s school, progressed to co-educational sixty years later, burned three times, and merged with an institution that no longer exists. It provided pasture for cows in its early days and boasts campuses throughout the southeast today. But I may be getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Who Was Dr. Fitzhugh?
Dr. Louis T. Fitzhugh (1841-1904) was the founder of the modern Belhaven College and served as its initial owner and first president. He came to Jackson in 1894, following a successful career as president of Whitworth College in Brookhaven. He had previously been a member of the faculty at the University of Mississippi. He launched Belhaven as a private school for girls and was influenced in his academic endeavors by Millsaps College and his association with the W.B. Murrah family. Fitzhugh’s new school was named for the old Belhaven mansion purchased from Colonel Jones Hamilton. The house, called Belhaven in honor of the Colonial’s ancestral home in Scotland, was located on raised ground near the present day intersection of N. Jefferson and Boyd (Bellevue Place) Streets. At the entrance of the original home, carved in the stone step, was the name Belhaven, which was also inscribed on the cut glass chandelier shades in the interior of the home. The Hamiltons were descended from Lord Belhaven of Scotland. Fitzhugh served as president of Belhaven until his death in 1904, at which time he was succeeded both as president and proprietor by James Rhea Preston. (2) (3)
Fire and Fate – Historical Twins
Three separate fires played a major role in the College’s early history. Belhaven was chartered as a private, one owner (Dr. Fitzhugh) institution in 1894. It was designed to be a four-year girl’s school. It was located in Dr. Hamilton’s deeded mansion on Boyd Street (now the 900 block of Bellevue), and was called Belhaven College for Young Ladies. This structure was totally destroyed in a massive fire on February 7, 1895 and replaced the following year with a single dwelling frame structure on the same site.
Mrs. J.R. Preston, wife of Belhaven’s second president, remembered in a mid-20th century address details of the first early campus. “As I recall the scenes of Belhaven as I first knew it, the white buildings with green blinds came before me, the two story dormitory and school building as one, with a porch adorned with attractive grill work, running along the front; the cupola rising above all, by its presence. I see beautiful, far-reaching views to be seen from all buildings for there was no northeast Jackson then. It comes vividly before me, the grounds of ten acres, most of which was in the campus, the rest in pasture for the Jersey cows, where in the spring they stood literally knee-deep in clover. I can still see the campus naturally adored with the native trees, oak, elm, hackberry and a few magnolias, with a row of pink crepe myrtle for the southern boundary. Still to be seen from the south as one drives down Belleview (now Bellevue), were the rockeries (rock gardens) adding a formal touch and there was a basketball field nearby. I recall the graveled driveway entering the campus at Mr. C.H. Alexander’s home, just south of Boyd Street on Jefferson. A quaint landmark was the stile by which pedestrians gained access to the board walk leading directly to the dormitory. This climb by day was breath-taking, and by night more than spooky”.
Dr. Preston (1853-1922) came to Belhaven from his presidency at Stanton College in Natchez. He was a former State superintendent of education and largely responsible for the public education system in place in Mississippi today. The State’s official motto Virtute et Armis (Valor and Arms) was coined by Preston and has appeared on the Mississippi coat of arms since 1894. A second devastating blaze began on October 19, 1910, from a furnace spark which landed in the dining room of the main building. According to Mrs. Kenneth Kraft and Mrs. Henry Mills, Dr. Preston’s daughters who witnessed the fire as children, the October day was dry and windy. The fire wagons came immediately, but the hydrant was at the foot of the hill. With no water pressure, nothing could be done. Preston decided for business and personal reasons not to rebuild Belhaven. He discussed his decision with his pastor J.B. Hutton of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. As a result, the Presbytery received as a donation by Preston title and charter to the school which was renamed the Belhaven Collegiate and industrial Institute on July 25, 1911. The Boyd Street site was abandoned and construction began on a new academic building on the corner of Harper and Park Streets– later to be renamed Pinehurst and Peachtree. Belhaven Street, to reach from the center of the campus to North State, was a dotted line on the maps of the day, a dirt road and as they say “only a gleam in the eye.” Fate would intervene again in a number of ways 16 years later. (3), (4), (5)
How Did Fitzhugh and Preston Halls Get Their Names?
On August 9, 1927, lightning struck the main building and destroyed the major part of the plant and most of its contents. This was the building facing Peachtree Street which housed dormitories on the first and second floors, a kitchen and dining area on the north end and a chapel and gymnasium on the south. One can only imagine what went through the mind of President Guy T. Gillespie as he received a Western Union wire while on board a train to Princeton University to deliver a speech. It appeared at first that the building was a total loss. Yet from the ashes of that summer day rose the phoenix of the modern day Belhaven University. It reset the course of the school’s history. The board of trustees met the following day and began plans to rebuild. Meanwhile, Gillespie had plans of his own. While taking an architecture course at Columbia University, he was required to do a design project. He applied this experience to the task at hand. He never really liked the campus being all one building and so he developed a plan for taking out the burned center section creating two distinct buildings which are Fitzhugh and Preston Halls today. Between the buildings was built a concrete lagoon with columns on either side. The beautiful lighted fountain which can be seen from far down Belhaven Street stands in this location now. (3) (6) (7)
The Years of Famine
Dr. Guy Gillespie began his presidency in 1921 and remained as head of the college for 33 years. He faced nearly insurmountable challenges in areas of endowment, enrollment and accreditation during his tenure. It would be no stretch to say that while Fitzhugh and Preston fathered the institution, Gillespie saved it during its formative years. The battle for accreditation, the lifeblood of every serious educational institution, began in earnest at a May 21, 1929 meeting when Gillespie announced to his board that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools had denied accreditation to the school. Their reasons were that endowment was $100,000 short of the required amount, the library needed 2,000 additional books, faculty salaries were far below the Association’s minimum and the faculty included only one Ph.D. The following 25 years were a testament to tenacity, endurance, courage and prayer. While church, local municipalities, out-of-state funding sources, local businesses and private individuals did their best to help the college meet its endowment needs and other accreditation criteria, there was a depression to contend with followed by a world war.
Through perseverance and God’s help on the morning of June 1, 1946, Gillespie was able to read the following statement to his board: “The outstanding event of the year was the admission of Belhaven College to membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools at the annual meeting of the Association in Memphis on March 28, 1946, and with the full accreditation of the institution as a standard liberal arts college.” Academically, Belhaven was legitimate. Its future was secured. Other historical landmarks were the designation of Belhaven as a co-educational institution in 1954, transfer of the college by the Synod of Mississippi Presbyterian Church in the United States to the Belhaven College Board of Trustees in 1972, and renaming the college Belhaven University in 2009. (3)
A Historical Anomaly
While many consider the birth of Belhaven as 1894, when Fitzhugh purchased the Hamilton property and received a charter for the establishment of the school, others point to 1883 as the beginning. Technically, others are correct. We have discussed the college’s difficulties with achieving accreditation which hindered its growth and academic credibility. One means of addressing this deficiency was a merger with the Mississippi Synodical College in Holly Springs on April 14, 1939. Consolidation of the two colleges took place under the following terms:
(1) Mississippi Synodical College would not close (but eventually did), but continue as a part of Belhaven College.
(2) Consolidation would take place as of June 1, 1939, and the Belhaven College Board would assume functions of the Mississippi Synodical College Board of Trustees.
(3) Assets and liabilities of the Mississippi Synodical College would be taken over by Belhaven.
(4) The Christian aims of both colleges would be preserved.
(5) The endowment, assets, and other permanent funds of Mississippi Synodical College would be kept intact and used as nearly in accordance with the intention of the original donation as possible.
(6) After liquidation of the outstanding indebtedness of Mississippi Synodical College, the residue would be used in the construction of a building or in some way to perpetuate the name of the college on the campus of Belhaven.
(7) Records of the Mississippi Synodical College were to be preserved at Belhaven.
(8) Dr. Robert Franklin Cooper, president of Mississippi Synodical College, was named vice-president of Belhaven.
Mississippi Synodical College opened in 1883. This date was adopted by the Board of Trustees as the founding date of Belhaven as it represented the oldest founding date of all of the institutions (Belhaven had merged with the McComb Female Institute when it was reopened by the Central Mississippi Presbytery in 1911), which were eventually absorbed into the college. (3) (8)
Belhaven University has come a long way from Fitzhugh’s dream of a Christian girl’s school in 1894 and that hot, windy afternoon in 1910 when Preston’s daughters watched fire consume that dream a second time only leading to a third. The college has survived three fires, a depression economy, elusive accreditation, myriad ownership and four name changes.
Today’s Belhaven University is a private four-year liberal arts institution and sits on a main Jackson campus of 42 acres bounded by Peachtree Street, Pinehurst and Greymont Avenues and Belvoir Place. It is composed of 13 classroom, dormitory and administrative buildings, a lake, a bowl, a pavilion, a commons and a lighted fountain. An Alumni Center is located on the west side of Peachtree Street near Riverside Drive. Every four years the City of Jackson hosts the International Ballet Competition and Belhaven University provides lodging for a majority of its participants from throughout the world. According to the Department of Communications, there are a total of 3,500 students, 1,100 traditional, with 500 living on the main Jackson campus, with 300 adult students on the Lefleur Campus. Seventeen hundred adult studies and graduate students are enrolled on campuses in Memphis, Houston, Orlando, Chattanooga and Atlanta, plus participating in a growing online program.
There are 27 undergraduate studies programs on the Jackson campus and five graduate studies programs including degrees in business and public administration. The ASPIRE Program, located in a facility on I-55 north in Jackson, provides an encouraging educational environment where adult graduate students can complete their degree programs while maintaining their careers and personal lives. The school competes well in the NAIA’s Mid-South and Southern States Athletic Conferences and the Baseball Blazers are looking forward to a stellar season this spring. A total of 17 bachelor and 13 graduate programs are housed on ancillary campuses in cities mentioned above. Associate degree programs are available on these sites as well. There are also extensive online studies available to the modern student. Remember back in 1929, when the library was 2,000 books short, insufficient for accreditation? The Hood Library now has 115,000 volumes and 500 periodicals. The Jackson campus has a faculty in excess of 90 professors and instructors, 20 of whom are Ph.Ds. The school has an endowment just under $5 million. (10) (11)
What Can We Do?
What can we do as a neighborhood to support this institution we see in many ways as our own? We can reflect a moment and ask ourselves some questions.
Have you spent some time on the campus walking trails lately to see all the new construction? Have you spoken with students or faculty members or walked along the lake by the practice fields and noticed the ducks and an occasional fisherman on a Sunday morning?
Did a friend or relative attend Belhaven back in the day; are they students now or plan to be?
Did you sit with your mother as I did as a child in the 1940’s by the lagoon filled with goldfish between Fitzhugh and Preston Halls and listened to her tell you of her own college days at Belhaven in the 1920’s? (She and the goldfish are gone but the memories and a magnificent fountain remain.)
Have you or those you know of a later generation visited Bitsy Irby Visual Arts and Dance Center at Peachtree and Euclid Streets, the Entergy Pavilion down the hill from the Bailey Commons or the Belhaven College of the Arts with its magnificent ballet performances on the western rise of Riverside Drive for an evening of cultural enrichment?
Did you know Eudora Welty who lived across the street? Do friends have coffee in her Shoebird Café in the McCravey Triplett Student Center? Did they visit the bookstore?
Have you done reading or research at the Warren Hood Library or voted in its Barber Auditorium?
Have you sat on the white benches along the faculty walk in Gillespie Commons?
Do you know anyone who built a home in Belhaven in the 1950’s or 60’s on Belvoir and knew it was once the northern shore of Belhaven Lake?
Did you swim or canoe in the lake as a kid or today watch its fountains display theior beauty near the practice fields?
Did your gang play football or baseball as children the bowl on Peachtree or watch your own children play soccer there only last week?
Have you seen or listened to the school’s free gift of the beautiful Belhaven Christmas Tree singing each season by the lake?
Have you or one of your friends bought a home in the neighborhood and in some cases spent more on renovation than the purchase price just so you can live here? Do we as residents and friends fully understand who gave our neighborhood its name?
Do you feel a sense of pride when people ask you where you live and you can tell them “Belhaven”?
There is always something which can be done to preserve a heritage of faith, courage, achievement and vision. There are commitments to be made, memories to be acknowledged, friends and associates to influence and work to be done. Dr. Fitzhugh will take the time in his eternal classroom to open to us his own book of life and acknowledge our support so that perhaps his hall and college will remain with us another hundred years attesting to the excellence of Christian good will. We have in Belhaven University a treasure and cornerstone to one of America’s great neighborhoods. You do not even have to go to school to realize how fortunate we are.
(1) Parrott, Roger, “Letter to Alumni and Friends of Belhaven” (December 2011)
(2) Gillespie, G.T., Dr. Louis T. Fitzhugh, Commencement Address (1954)
(3) Gordon, James F., Jr., “A History of Belhaven College 1894-1981”, Jackson, MS, Belhaven College (1983)
(4) Preston, Mrs. J.R., “Memories of Early Belhaven”, speech (undated)
(5) Belhaven College, Sanford Map Company, sheet 19 (1918)
(6) Waibel, Paul R., “Belhaven College,” Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing Co. (2000)
(7) Parrott, Roger, “Thinking About Higher Education” Belhaven Tartan: (Winter 2011)
(8) “Belhaven University”, Wikipedia Encyclopedia (January 2012)
(9) Parrott, Roger, quote from e-mail (1/13/12)
(10) Belhaven University Department of Communications
(11) Belhaven University website
Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation Executive Director Virgi Lindsay for the idea
- Henry Mills, M.D., grandson of Dr. and Mrs. James Rhea Preston for his kind hospitality and for sharing personal documents as to the early history of Belhaven
- Bryant Butler, Director of Communications, Belhaven College, for invaluable information on Dr. Louis Fitzhugh, photograph reproduction of the Hamilton Mansion and current Belhaven data.
- Charles Guidine, Archivist, Belhaven College Reference and Periodical Library for photos and access to current archival files
- Nancy E. Harvey, my wife, who provided technical assistance in writing; proofing and encouragement
- The Belhaven neighborhood itself by making this project worthwhile and for the privilege of allowing me to enjoy my old age as one who grew up with its landmarks, its institutions and its people.
Hoeing up a bed for onion sets wears me out, but if I were capable of digging a hole through the earth to the other side of the globe and find a patch of soil, it would be on Ile Amsterdam, situated in one of the most desolate stretches of ocean in the world. The island was named by one of those intrepid Dutch explorers of the 17th century, van Diemen, who in 1633 named it after his ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam, which was (incredibile dictu) named after a Dutch settlement on the east coast of North America at the mouth of the Hudson River.
Now under French administration, Ile Amsterdam is 21 square miles of rugged terrain in a Mediterranean climate: warm, dry and sunny. La Roche Godon, the only settlement on the island, is home to about 30 non-permanent inhabitants involved in biological, meteorological and geomagnetic studies. Doubtless out of sheer coincidence, both Jackson and Ile Amsterdam have a volcanic presence, but while the mountain on the island is potentially active, I have every assurance that the cone beneath Jackson is very much extinct. The island was once home to one of the few species of flightless ducks in the world, the Amsterdam wigeon, but still has the Amsterdam albatross as well as the Amsterdam fur seals, which bask in thousands on the rocky coastline. This sign features cartoon versions of the seals. “Welcome to Amsterdam.”
As culinary curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art, I match food and art together. We’re planning on starting an art gallery in the kitchen, a food art gallery. That’s where I come into play; with a chef’s table in the kitchen, I’ll be able to curate every meal and tell a story. The new kitchen in the museum has a complete chef’s table, a mounted-to-the-wall table we put in about a month ago that will never go anywhere. I’ll let people walk through the kitchen and view the art, beginning on our monthly ‘Sipp Sourced event on third Thursday. People will be able to come in to the museum and get a kitchen experience. It’s never been done quite like this in Mississippi, and it’s one of the things that make chefs more intelligent by bringing us out of the box. Often we get caught up in this stereotype of Mississippi: stewed collard greens and fried chicken and such. We need to tie food in to more than what you usually think of when you consider it. If you sit down and talk with my grandmother, and if you open your ears up and really listen and let her curate her past, you can stitch that into artwork; when you look at her pecan-wood tables you can tell they have a story. If you go to my grandmother’s house, really anybody’s grandmother’s house, you’ll find art. We tend to focus on the plate on the table, but we need to begin thinking about everything else in the environment. That’s what I want to do; I want to curate my surroundings.
I will be at the James Beard House on April 13 with Mitchell Moore from Campbell’s Bakery and Dan Blumenthal from BRAVO! It’s a beautiful thing when you have fellow chefs who are honored to do it; they know what the business is and know we have to bring the finest quality we can to the table. When the James Beard Foundation invites you, it’s for a reason, and it’s an honor to be one of the ones they call on from Mississippi. I’ve done two other events with the James Beard people. I’ve cooked twice in the house itself. I also did the Hamptons event where they honored Carla Hall. Mitchell and Dan have been with me at every event. It’s a tough experience, but fun to do and showcase Mississippi. Carla talked about getting me on The Chew soon. I can’t wait until that happens, so I’m going to keep bugging her about that so one of the Mississippi fellows can be on The Chew talking about Mississippi.
Everywhere I go, I celebrate Mississippi. With the menu for the Beard event, I will try to take it all the way. For appetizers, the Simmons Delta catfish are smoked and made into croquettes, the pickled radishes are coming from Madison, and I will pair it up with a pickled peach and dry sake spritzer with lemon oil celery bitters. The other appetizer dear to my heart is the Mississippi Gulf shrimp boudin served on Mitch’s house-made crackers. We’re doing fennel sauerkraut and pairing that up with a Gibson-style martini with pickled mustard seed and pickled striped beets. The other group that’s supporting us in this dinner is Trinchero Family Estates in Napa Valley. I met those people when I was a corporate chef with Marriott, and so nine years later I call them to pair up Mississippi food with Napa Valley wines. And they’re donating it all. I’m still going to be taking Cathead vodkas and Hoodoo coffee liqueur that we’ll be pairing with our desserts and other things we’re cooking. I’ll also take a few Mississippi beers to pair up with our all-time famous pickle brined fried chicken, maybe a Sweetwater.
Our Jackson Public Schools partnership started last November. I was already going into the cafeterias and working with the staff. It’s a different world, so I’m still trying to get adjusted to it, since as a chef, having worked in restaurants all my life and going into a cafeteria, it’s a totally different environment. Honestly, I probably jumped in a little too soon and was a little too aggressive about it, so I had to learn how to think about things a little differently. I have to really connect with the kids as opposed to a guest who is going to come into your restaurant. When I do a menu now, I might even turn on some cartoons just to be in the background where I can hear them, but I have to take myself back to where I was when I was a kid to relate, and it’s kind of tricky. I’ve been working with the kids, the cafeteria workers, the staff and the parents. Now we’ve rolled out this concept in which I do a rotating menu that changes every month. The menus are highlighted on Mondays, when the kids bring their parents, their grandparents; their families come out and dine with them. This month we’re doing a “Mississippi Italian” menu. We’re doing a homemade flatbread pizza, a veggie pizza that’s made to order with things like fresh broccoli, squash, zucchini, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and this pizza is the number one thing the kids are asking for. You’d think they’d want sausage and pepperoni, but the kids are excited about their vegetables. Instead of just giving them a boring plate we put a fun twist on it. I try to balance myself between the two schools we’re in now, Blackburn and Powell Middle School, but as soon as we work out the kinks a little bit more the goal is to go into all thirteen schools later this year.
Working with the staff in the schools takes me back to a world I’m used to, that of being a corporate chef for Marriott. I floated around to at least seven hotels at one time, so I had to instill everything I had been taught into the chefs at each hotel. It’s the same thing with the cafeteria managers and the different schools; you get on the same level with one another. I invite them to the kitchen here in the museum, we play around in the kitchen, and we establish a relationship. They see how I like to touch food, and move food and season food so they can map me and get closer to how I like to work in the kitchen. We take photos, make recipes and put them in a book. They’re beautiful people. I remember coming up and being stuck into a hotel environment where I’m cooking the same foods over and over again. I thought corporate had forgotten all about me, I’m tired of cooking the same chicken breast, when are we going to do something different? With Marriott, you couldn’t just change things overnight; you had to wait for it to become system-wide. This sense of institutionalization in public schools is the same.
Coming up on February 18th is is the first year anniversary of my monthly ‘sipp Sourced pop up restaurants. We’re going to celebrate with Mississippi burgers, and we’ll have “Art for Burgers” too. I’ll be grinding local goat and veal, chicken from Hattiesburg, beefalo out of Morton, and pork and beef from Lena. All will have a different theme, all from different counties. We’re also revamping the Mississippi Museum of Art garden, planting a pumpkin patch for the kids. I work with Bill Evans, who’s with MSU out of Crystal Springs, and he assists us pro bono. My goal is to put in a small chicken coop; wouldn’t it be cool to drive down Court Street in downtown Jackson and see chicken coops?