Let There Be Lights!

In 2005, Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood passed two landmarks: the first Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights, and, shortly thereafter, the most devastating storm ever to impact the state of Mississippi. The damage wrought by Katrina has long since healed, and tomorrow, for the thirteenth year, Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights will illuminate the capitol city. In this excerpt, Virgi Lindsay,  former executive director of the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation (GBNH), remembers how Jackson’s biggest neighborhood event all began.

“Camp Best, who was director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation at the time, suggested that the GBNH should have a neighborhood festival in Belhaven. We’d been working hard on Fortification Street, and we wanted to do something fun and visible to bring people to the area. Camp and I were having coffee at Cups, and he said that we needed to do a street festival. I agreed; we already had the Belhaven Market going on, which was a Saturday event, but it was clear that we needed to take the next step.”

“There were several occasions that Virgi and I met for coffee at Cups in the early days of Fondren Renaissance Foundation and the Greater Belhaven Foundation,” Camp said. “We were fellow urban warriors in the trenches together back then, supporting each other in whatever way we could. The Fondren Renaissance Foundation had experienced some early successes with our Arts, Eats and Beats, Fondren Unwrapped, Symphony at Sunset and ARTMix (the early precursor to Fondren After Five). All of these events had one purposeful thing in common: get people outdoors in your neighborhood to show the world that it is safe to have fun there. Make it free, so everybody can come, and, use local music and art as the draw.”

Camp said that when he suggested to Virgi that she consider doing the same thing in Belhaven, she worried that they didn’t really have any restaurants or galleries for people to come to back then. “I said it didn’t matter. Make it up; make it look like you do, put the music and artists in the street and people will come. And they did.”

“So in a couple of weeks, I really began thinking about where it could be and when,” Virgi said, “And I began research on a good time to have a festival in Jackson when we wouldn’t have a lot of competition. I quickly found out that every month when the weather could be expected to be great was just full of events. But about that time, Chuck and I went to New Orleans in August, and just happened upon White Linen Night, one of the first ones they held. At that point, it was still a very quiet little event run by the residents on Julia Street. I looked around at this lovely, wonderful neighborhood event, and I thought that if New Orleans, Louisiana can have an outdoors event in August, then Jackson, Mississippi  can, too.”

Virgi said another reason the Belhaven foundation chose August was because they knew that if they were doing an event in April or October that the competition for sponsorships would be very tough, so scheduling an event in August helped guarantee that the sponsors would be more generous. “And yes, everyone thought we were nuts, but we decided to give it a go. We worked with the theory that it would be the last party of the summer, so we’ve always held Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights the weekend before school starts, the weekend before football season starts.”

The very first year, 2005, Katie Hester and Cheryl Grubbs were the co-chairmen of the event. “We were going to open the gates at 5:30, still figuring things out, not sure at all how it would go. We looked up at 5:15, and there a good 500-600 people walking down to Carlisle Street. We had over 1500 people to come that first year. The Belhaven Improvement Association (BIA) volunteered to cook hot dogs and hamburgers in McDade’s parking lot. It was probably the hottest year we’ve ever had, with temperatures hovering around 100 at five in the afternoon. We had some food vendors, and BIA bought every hot dog in McDade’s, but we still ran out of food, we ran out of drinks, we ran out of everything, but as far as we were concerned, that was the most wonderful problem to have.”

Virgi remembers many near misses. “That July, Winn-Dixie had pulled out of the old Jitney 14 space, which was the second time in a short period that the neighborhood almost lost its grocery store. But just four days before the first Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights, GBNH could finally announce that McDade’s was going into the space. “There was a time when we thought that we were having our first festival and our one big anchor in the neighborhood would be lost. It was touch and go, but a week before Bright Lights, Greg McDade moved in. So instead of there being a big, dark, padlocked building at the festival site, we had a vibrant neighborhood grocery with all the energy associated with it.”

“Nobody knew what to expect,” Virgi remembers. “McDade’s ran out of change, everybody ran out of water. Then nine days later came Katrina, and retrospect it’s very emotional when you think about what a wonderful time we all had together that Saturday night, when we came together as a community without any realization that within a very short time we would pull together again in a totally different way.

We had grounding; we came to know that we’re here, we’re together. It’s a powerful memory.”

Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake

Regionalism is rapidly coming to an end; we can speak of chicken and dumplings as a uniquely Southern dish, but any given Southern foodways pundit will tell you it’s now being served in dim sum with a local spin by expatriated Alabamans living in Hong Kong. It’s no longer safe to make an assumption such as I did with pound cake being a New England recipe on the basis that it just sounds so simple and practical–a pound each of flour, sugar, eggs and butter mixed and baked–but no, a friend from Texas now living in Maine said that their new neighbors considered pound cake a particularly Southern recipe, which makes me think that what I consider as simple and practical Mainers think is broke and stupid. Then again, people have been making this Ur-recipe for cake since, well, the dawn of history, so it all boils down to a matter of perspective if not a quibbling over terms. This durable recipe and slight variations thereof is an old favorite, a summery cake great with any fresh fruit, with ice cream a sin.

2 cups sugar
1 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1 cup buttermilk
4 large eggs
1/4 cup freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla
3 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325 (trust me, this is a crucial step). Grease, line and set aside a 10-inch loaf pan or bundt. Combine sugar and butter, beat until creamy. Add poppy seeds, buttermilk, eggs, lemon zest and vanilla, mix well, add remaining ingredients and beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until thoroughly blended and moist. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake one hour. Turn off the oven and leave the cake in the cooling oven for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for at least an hour before slicing.

Making Hash

With hash we’re discussing leftovers, a subject you often find mentioned but rarely expounded because if we are what we eat, then our leftovers are us; what you save from a full meal and how you eat it later is as essential an indication of your moral character as the literature—if any—of your lavoratory.

In practice, leftovers rarely get anything near approaching formal treatment, particularly leftover meats, which are most often shoved between two slices of bread with a slathering of mayo (and usually little more). But in theory leftover meat can become alive again in such a way that it becomes a thing of wonder, and the foremost dish for this transformation is hash.

Chicken hash is a dish you find in upscale metropolitan social clubs, corned beef hash is a standard of diner breakfasts, but America’s staple hash is roast beef, served with or without gravy any time of the day. Beard said that in the most perfect roast beef he’d ever had—somewhere the hell in Minnesota—the meat was “perfectly cubed”, which strikes me as bizarre because my roasts are so tender that the meat shreds easily; I wouldn’t consider slicing  at all, I’d just rough it up a bit and set it aside while I browned my potatoes.

Sometimes I’ll use the leftover potatoes, but if I’m serving hash as a breakfast dish I’ll cut a fresh red potato into a small dice and cook in oil. Once the potatoes are browned and done through, I’ll throw in an onion and cook until clear; some people will throw a mild pepper in too, but I don’t belong to that school. Then add the meat with your seasonings, which should be basic; salt and pepper, paprika and a little dry mustard. Anyone who tries to gussy up hash really needs to relax.

Sweet Pepper Poppers

Stem, seed and devein small sweet peppers. Season inside with salt, pepper, paprika and granulated garlic, and then stuff with slices of smoked Swiss or Gouda cheese wrapped in thinly-sliced ham or smoked turkey. Place in a very hot oven (I put them in mini-muffin tins) until cheese is melted through. Serve hot as a nosh or with hefty pasta such as lasagna or cannoli.