Vardaman Swirl Cheesecake

This recipe is fun to make, and the results are sumptuous. Of course sweet potatoes are involved, in this case blended with a fool-proof New York-style cheesecake. You can add chopped nuts to the crust if you like. The cheesecake filling is 16 oz. cream cheese, 2/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and two large eggs. The sweet potato filling is two cups of “candied” sweet potatoes pureed and mixed with 1/2 cup whole milk or cream, 1/2 cup sugar, two eggs and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. The crust is a box of graham cracker crumbs mixed with a stick and a half of melted butter, a cup of brown sugar and packed into an 8″ spring-form pan. Drop dollops of both filling mixtures alternately around the crust, then take a spoon and swirl it around a little bit. Be artistic. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes and cool on a rack for at least an hour before removing from spring-form. Refrigerate for at least two hours before slicing.

The Temple of Flora

To get to Flora, Mississippi, you drive north from Jackson between the teepee and Indian mound in Pocahontas and past the Petrified Forest into the rolling landscape of Madison County. Flora is somewhat off the main highway, a quiet little community that began as a whistle stop on the old Illinois Central line. As we drove, I couldn’t keep my mind off the fact that Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers; I later learned that the town was named after the wife of the man who donated the land for the railroad right-of-way, but the coincidence proved to be excruciating-ly apt.

The event I was attending was a plant swap, and not just any plant swap, but one that had been started 26 years before by the town librarian, Janice Watkins. Now, twenty-six years is a very long time for any community event in a town this size, and particularly impressive for something as offbeat as a plant swap, but Mrs. Watkins’ swap had endured, propagated by people from all walks of life from Flora and surrounding towns who had a love of growing and caring for plants. The people were (like me) older, most above forty, mostly female, but some men, and most seemed to know one another, but it wasn’t long before everyone was chatting up a storm.

The swap was held in the library’s community room; three long tables were set up before some seventy chairs set in close ranks. As the people filed in and signed the register, their plants were given a numbered stake and set on the table. Soon the tables as well as most of the seats were filled and the swap began. First, there were a few community announcements (“The PTA will be holding a bake sale…”), then one gentleman got up and told of some local restaurants the attendees might like (a pizza place, a burger joint, a Mexican cantina, and one place run by a chef who sold Kobe beef but also had a meat and three at lunch).

Then a gentleman got up, introduced Mrs. Watkins, who most everybody already knew, of course, now retired, but who still held the swap at the new library across the street from the old one in city hall. The man went on to tell how Mrs. Watkins was instrumental in getting the new library built, which for a small-town library was a very impressive facility indeed, with a kitchen, a community room, a courtyard and several open rooms filled with shelving and books. There was a moment of confusion before the door prizes were awarded when we realized none of us had been given numbers, but names were (often haltingly) read from the register, and the gardening gloves, boxes of Miracle-Gro, calendars, diaries, notebooks, huggies and other what-nots were awarded.

During this time, we’d all been scoping out the plants on the long table, and in all there were probably about seventy-five; some had decorative hangers and ribbons, some sported bits of paper with names taped to plastic spoons or forks. Before the hat with plant numbers was passed, we had plenty of time to cruise the tables and see the offerings, and some people talked about the plants they bought. I told the story about how my grandmother gave me a cutting for the beefsteak begonia I’d bought some thirty years ago; one lady told a rambling story about her late brother and a lavender Siberian iris that may or may not be an iris after all; and one particularly well-informed individual (there’s one in every crowd) shared the story of how jewels of Opar got its name from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, with Opar being another name for the lost continent of Atlantis (which may or may not be true).

And the names! In the eternal language of Flora herself the names, strung together, sounded like an incantation: begonia, hydrangea, sansevieria, ajuga, canna, sedum, crinum, ficus, vanilla plantifolia, firmiana, ruschia; then the folk names: milk and wine lily, Chinese parasol tree, orchid cactus, Mexican petunia, apostle plant, squirrel’s foot fern, pearl bush, mother of thousands, chicken gizzards and many others. Everyone seemed to have their eye on a particular plant; the little lady behind me really wanted a scraggly paw-paw someone had brought while I was jonesing for the chicken-foot cactus. In the end, she got a brown turkey fig, which she found adequate compensation, but I ended up with an anemic aloe that put me in mind of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

Driving home on Joe Cocker Road east out of Pocahontas, I thought how the sort of people at Mrs. Watkins’ plant swap may not run out and buy the latest variety of zinnia or order dahlias the size of dinner plates online, but they are the grass-roots gardeners of our culture; these are the people who tend for the plants that thrive year after year, generation after generation with a modicum of care, the types of plants your granny grew, the kind you read about in Welty, Douglas and O’Connor. These people tend and pass along the gentle flame that inspires us to care for growing things, which is an act of devotion older than Ur. As for my scraggly little aloe, I will care for it and think of Flora.

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes with Feta and Pecans

This is a good way to dress up sweet potatoes for the holiday table, but it’s simple enough for less formal occasions as well. You can use another sort of crumbly white cheese like ricotta or queso fresco, but I like the salty feta, and you can use walnuts instead of pecans; black walnuts are particularly good. Bake potatoes by coating with vegetable oil and placing in a very hot oven for about an hour; bake an extra potato so you’ll have enough of the potato mixture to slightly overstuff. Cool potatoes, slit and scoop out the pulp, mix with butter and brown sugar, honey or molasses to taste and about a tablespoon each of feta and chopped nuts per potato depending on the size of the spuds. You can add raisins, but that’s gilding the lily in my book. Stuff potato shells, top with more cheese and bake in a hot oven until cheese is browned. Sprinkle with more pecans before serving.

The Statue and the Fury: A Review

I really wanted to like this book, I really did. I was hoping that Dees had matured since publishing Lies and Other Truths (Jefferson Press, Oxford; 2008) an ill-advised assortment of self-absorbed musings, and The Statue and the Fury (Nautilus Press, Oxford) does have an initial premise of objectivity, but this grounding proves to be nothing more than jumping-off point for another lengthy exercise in self-indulgence. The Statue and the Fury could well be described as a roman à clef with no need for a key, since the names come one after another rat-a-tat-tat like a perfunctory roll call of characters, encompassing everyone of note in Oxford during the late 1990s and many who are still there.

In reporting on the tempest in a teapot created over cutting a magnolia on the Oxford Square to make way for a statue, the only character that gets more play than Jim Dees is William Faulkner, said statue subject, who figures prominently on the cover in the company of Willie Nelson, James Meredith, and Myrlie Evers below a vermeil title in a clumsy Monty Python-esque montage. We shouldn’t find this depiction surprising, since Faulkner is Oxford’s most important asset aside from the University of Mississippi, and the others are of course Mississippi icons in their own right, even Willie. Dees goes so far as to share his thoughts on Faulkner’s works in a Catherine’s wheel of maritime metaphors, including, “I would direct first-time readers to the novellas in Go Down, Moses or the Snopes trilogy, or, to dip your toe gently in the Faulkner sea, page-turners like Intruder in the Dust or As I Lay Dying.” Not, perhaps, the most perceptive advice, but then Dees with uncharacteristic modesty admits that he is “not any kind of Faulkner know-it-all”. (Indeed.)

Dees can be engaging on air as well as in person (provided you’re not on the wrong side of his toxic wit), but while his writing displays a formidable command of the first person singular, its sardonic tone is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, even when describing events fraught with high comedy such as Pizza Bob on the witness stand. In short, the entire work concerns nothing more than a “You had to be there” sort of situation in a feeble attempt at gonzo journalism and the title is either an ill-advised tongue-in-cheek pun or a painfully fumbled riff on Faulkner (six of one, half a dozen of the other). Dees’ Lies and Other Truths as well as They Write Among Us (Jefferson Press, Oxford; 2003) to which he wrote the introduction, both sold out, and it’s certainly likely that unless an unrealistic number of copies were printed The Statue and the Fury will as well, particularly if everyone mentioned buys a copy.

By dint of his gig as host of “Thacker Mountain Radio”, which no less than Dees himself refers to as the “Grand Ole Opry of literature”, Dees has become a media figure. Given his unremarkable publishing history, what we’re left with in The Statue and the Fury is an example of marketing based on the appeal of personality; in a sense, buying Dees’ book is somewhat the Mississippi equivalent of buying that collection of Kim Kardashian’s selfies. If you are a fan of Jim Dees, you will certainly find this book worth every penny, and if you lived in Oxford during the ‘Nineties, even if you’re not mentioned, you might buy it, too, but sooner or later it’s bound to be available at your local library.

A Pipe Dream

The corner of Peachtree and Poplar gets sun six to eight hours a day nine months of the year and lies south below a rise that shields it from winter winds. The garden there between the street and an old parking lot is filled with flowers and fruits, butterflies and bees. My hope is for it to become a pocket park, a small public space usually created on a single vacant building lot or on a small irregular piece of land. Too small for physical activities (well, maybe tai chi), pocket parks provide a greenway for wildlife (particularly birds and insects, though you can’t rule out the occasional reptile or mammal ), greenery, a place to sit outdoors and often a venue for the visual and performing arts, if only in the form of a wall and a stage. In upscale neighborhoods, pocket parks are the only option for creating new public spaces of the type that increase neighboring property values. I realize this idea of creating a little park on that busy corner is a pipe dream. All I can do is cast bread upon the waters.

Jamaican Sweet Potato Pudding

Recipes practically identical to this are made throughout the West Indies as well as Bermuda, where it’s traditionally served on Guy Fawkes Night (Nov. 5, which to me seems very much like a cross between Independence Day and Halloween) by royalists as well as those who simply like to set a good table. The texture is fudge-like; very dense and intensely flavorful. You can add grated coconut to the pudding itself, but I find coconut works better toasted as a topping. Mix 1 1/2 pounds cooked pureed sweet potato with 2 cups cream of coconut, 1 stick melted butter, juice of 1 lime and 1 cup brown sugar until smooth. Blend in by spoonfuls 1 cup flour; add 1 cup raisins (optional), 2 teaspoons vanilla and 1 teaspoon each ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg spice. Pour batter into a well-oiled 8-inch cake pan and bake at 350 for about an hour, until firm. Let cool quite thoroughly; it’s best to serve chilled, and trust me the best way to toast shredded or flaked coconut is to toss it in a dry skillet on a high flame, which gives it a great flavor. Top pudding with coconut before slicing; this recipe easily provides a dozen servings.

Tag Along Home, Little Bob

You asked me about the statue in the cemetery, the one of the dog. The statue is on the Guinn family plot. The Guinns are gone now, but they were well-known. Robert Guinn was an attorney who handled mostly small claims, but made a good enough living to buy a house on President Street. He had a lovely wife named Rose and a little girl, Doris. All little girls should be pretty, but Doris wasn’t; her face fused improperly in the womb. There’s a name for the condition that I can’t remember, but it’s a cruel assessment of the divine to say that was God’s will, if you ask me. She was never photographed, but there was a portrait painted, and the artist aligned her features. I saw it long ago; she had dark hair and a shy smile.

Doris in all other respects was a normal little girl; she had dolls and dresses and went to school with all the other little girls on the street. She also had a small dog, a spaniel of some kind that she adored. Her father had given her the puppy when she was five years old, so she named it after him and called it Little Bob. The dog would follow her to school, wait afternoons on the corner for her to come home and stayed with her before she died at twelve.

After that, Little Bob would go to the corner every afternoon and wait; at dark he’d go home until one day he couldn’t, and Bob Guinn went and got him. Oh, there was a big stink about putting the statue of a dog in a Christian cemetery, much less physical remains, but Robert Guinn took it to court and won the right, his finest hour before the bench. So that’s Little Bob, resting at the feet of his mistress; he was a good dog.