Jackson: A Neighborhood

In addition to their numerous charitable endeavors, the Junior League of Jackson has issued two quite remarkable publications. The first, in 1978, was their landmark Southern Sideboards, a truly luminous work that has since gone through fifteen printings, five of those Southern Living Hall of Fame editions. The recipes in Southern Sideboards altogether comprise nothing less than an exhaustive tutorial for home cooks in the Deep South, and if that weren’t enough also includes a heart-felt introduction by Wyatt Cooper.

Their second, more important work is Jackson Landmarks (1982) dedicated to the Manship House, one of Jackson’s most beloved architectural treasures. Jackson Landmarks is important not only for the wealth of detail and historical data, but also because Jackson’s urban landscape has changed significantly in the 35 years since its publication, and an estimated 25-30% of these historic structures have disappeared.

Jackson Landmarks also includes an essay (“The House”) by Jackson native Charlotte Capers  whose name has become synonymous with historic preservation across the state, as well as this one, “Jackson: A Neighborhood” by another Jackson native, Eudora Welty, one of America’s grand dames of belles lettres.

Welty’s essay is a charming memoir of a fragile time long past when little boys and girls pulled steamboats made of shoe boxes and tissue paper illuminated by stubby candles down sidewalks in the lightening-bug dusk, thrilled to cliff-hangers on silver screens in spacious movie theaters and endured lectures on distant lands and dramatic duets from another time on rough plank seats under a dusty Chautauqua canvas out West Capitol.

Jackson: A Neighborhood

It seems, looking back, that everything that went on in Jackson was done in the unit of the family. When Livingston Lake opened, it was the family that responded. They went out in the family car every morning, and took a dip before breakfast. In that first onrush of enthusiasm, you rode out from home in the rising sun, already in your bathing suit and rubber cap decorated with rubber butterflies, singing “Margie” all the way (that was the summer the lake opened) to learn to swim the breast stroke in a harness of water wings. As they went methodically splashing around you, their heads rising out of that warm brown water, it was neighborly; you saw all the same people every morning, much as you do at the supermarket now.

When you and I look back at Jackson, doesn’t it seem that everyday life then easily gravitated to the personal level? When the postman arrived with the mail (twice a day) at your door, he blew a whistle. It seems to me that the mail itself was all composed of letters. Could it even be true tht junk mail had not then been invented? We children, of course, would have loved it, but I remember nothing coming that would qualify except what we sent off for ourselves—orders for signet rings in return for wads and wads of Octagon Soap coupons.

The scale of life was personal and manageable—manageable for children. There were a lot of three-digit telephone numbers. You gave your number to Central, and Central was a person—a lady, who said “Number, please,” and “Sorry the lion is busy.” If you wondered what time it was, a normal thing was to use the phone and ask Central to give you the Fire Department. Nobody in the world had an answering service: you got them; not a recording, a fireman. Their line was doubtless often busy with people curious to know the time, but never mind: if you had a fire, there were fire alarm boxes fixed to the light poles on convenient street corners, little red iron boxes with glad doors. Any alarm would bring the whole fire department out on the street. This included, in my earliest memories, a wagon called “the steamer.” There was a clanging bell mounted on the front and a kind of brass boiler filled the back, with white stream rolling out at the top. It was always a little late, behind the hook-and-ladder truck and che Chief; but the steamer alone was pulled by a pair of matching white horses, out from under whose calloping hooves live sparks flew. S it thundered up the street, it was something glorious, worth waiting for and running after.

When you think of your childhood, there are many people who seem to have gone by in a parade: the old familiars. Many Jackson familiars were seasonal; and they were punctual. The blackberry lady and the watermelon man, the scissors grinder, the monkey man whose organ you could hear coming from a block away, would all appear at their appointed time. The sassafras man at his appointed time (the first sign of spring) would take his place on the steps of the downtown Post Office, decorated like a general, belted and sashed and hung about with cartridges of orange sassafras root he’s cut in the woods and tied on. They were to make tea with to purify your blood, and quite cheap at the price, something like a nickel a bunch. And when winter blew in, out came the hot tamale man with his wheeled stand and its stove to keep the tamales steaming hot in their cornshucks while he did business at the intersection of Hamilton and North West.

On a day when my mother had taken me to the Emporium where Mr. Charlie Pierce was making some suggestions for a party dress for me, he suddenly said, “My dear Mrs. Welty—the gypsies,” and without further warning, the flower spray and sash—he’d been showing us how they would go—were swept out of sight and beneath the counter. And there the Gypsies ambled, down the aisle. You could count on Gypsies in Jackson, coming with the first hint of fall. Gypsies were seasonal too, like the locusts and katy-dids.

Entertainment was easy to come by. First of all there were the movies. Setting out in the early summer afternoons on foot, by way of Smith Park to Capitol Street and down it, passing the Pythian Castle with its hot stone breath, through the one spot of shade beneath Mrs. Black’s awning, crossing Town Creek—then visible and uncontained—we went carrying parasols over out heads and little crocheted bags over our wrists containing the ten or fifteen cents for the ticket (with a nickel or dime further for McIntyre’s Istrione. At the Majestic we could sit in a box—always empty, because airless as a bureau drawer; at the Istrione, which was said to occupy the site of an old livery stable, we might see Alice Brady in “Drums of Jeopardy” and at the same time have a rat run over our feet. As far as I recall, there was no movie we were not allowed to see until we got old enough not to see “The Shiek”.

At a time when the Century was still a live theatre, a third movie house came along on Capitol Street. This was an open air theatre which opened after dark, on the Town Creek bottom. The creek itself was straddled by an enormous billboard, which in my mind’s eye I will always see pasted with an ad for a coming attraction with Annette Kellerman. It portrayed Annette in a long white drapery, standing on the edge of a cliff, blindfolded. Her arms were straight out in front of her, and one toe already pointed over the abyss. At my urgent pleas, our family attended. And when we did, Annette never went anywhere near a cliff, and made not a single appearance blindfolded, or even in draperies. She just kept on her usual bathing suit, and if there ever was anything after her, she outswam it. I attributed the early folding of the Open Air Picture Show to this gyp, but was laid officially to the heavy attendance of mosquitoes at all performances.

But once a year, and another part of summer, live entertainment came with the Redpath Chautauqua. The tent went up on a vacant lot somewhere near the West Capitol Street Methodist Church. My father always took tickets for the full week’s performances. This meant we could ride on the street car at night, which only began the excitement; holding on to wicker seats by open windows and smelling the scorching rails as we made what seemed a sizzling speed through the calm of nighttime Jackson. “Where Will YOU Spend Eternity?” was even then a landmark sign looking down from under a light bulb onto the I.C. Station, from just beyond Mr. Tripp’s Furniture Store.

Within the Chautauqua tent: the smells of newest sawdust and oldest canvas, plank benches down front for the children to sit together on, stage with green rep curtains fastened together in front, while you wanted with your heart in your throat for them to be rattled back. Until then you could only keep reading over and over the hopeful sign that hung on a tent pole, “Kimball Piano Used.”

The show might be an educational lecture on a distant part of the world, or a concert by a musical trio (generally all ladies), or the performance of a play such as “Turn to the Right” or, more blessedly, “The Bat.”

The on the final night, a play was performed one year with a cast of local children; we were encouraged to try out. I did, for a role that where all you did in try-outs was sit with your ankles crossed in a folding chair in the middle of the stage with all the others around you and singing to you. It didn’t appear that there were even any lines to speak. Another girl, with naturally curly hair, beat me to the part. Imagine my surprise when, on the night, this character turned out to be Joan of Arc and what she was doing at center stage was being burned at the stake, while the rest sang to her (this was during World War I): “Joan of Arc! Joan of Arc! May your spirit guide us through! Allons, enfants de la patrie! Joan of Arc! We’re for you!” (I’d had a close call.)

I feel we were highly entertained as children, and quite well versed in ways of entertaining ourselves. Our play was unscheduled, unorganized and incessant—in our backyards, our friends’ backyards, in the public parks, and especially in summertime, we ran free. (Our mothers, however knew right where we were.) At the same time, it seems to me, we read all day. We might read all day in a tree.

Summer nights, we “played out”. We made “choo-choo boats—steamboats—out of shoeboxes with windows in the shapes of the moon and stars cut out of the sides and tissue-paper pasted over, and a candle inside lighted to show through, and at first-dark, down the river of sidewalk, pulling our shining boats on a string, we met other boats, and passes each other.


Summer days we went to spend all day with each other. You might play paper dolls. You went carrying all you had in a bulging Bellas-Hess catalogue in which the dolls, families and families of them, and their outfits were filed flat between the pages. With paperdolls and your friend’s paperdolls, the thing to be desired was number. The combined batteries of your paperdolls and your friends paperdolls spent the day visiting and dressing for each other. They acted out exciting scenes we thought up. Though a certain number of the fathers of these families had nothing to wear but long underwear, or if clothed at all were obliged to carry a second pair of pants over their arms (they all came out of the mail order catalogues), this didn’t cloud our day.

A child quite naturally thinks his own world—his house, his street, his town—is going to stay forever the way it is, in the same way that he thinks his own family will always be where he sees them now, and exactly the same. We of my day may have kept an unusually strong and reassuring conception of Jackson; for most of our childhood, the look of Jackson did indeed remain essentially the same. Buildings seldom came down, streets didn’t get widened—or rezoned. Not only the streets and houses and “downtown” kept being just what they were supposed to be. Trees too seemed permanent. Trees you were growing up with remained where they were and you knew them in all their seasons. They just got bigger, still lining the same streets where you walked. In those days, the sidewalks yielded to the trees and went around them. The big tree in front of the Carnegie Library at Mississippi and Congress took over the prime parking place in the street itself, and the curb ran out in a big half-moon to take care of the roots. Downtown traffic went around it. The tree at the Central Fire Station was given similar respect in Pearl Street until we, ourselves, at our age, let it be cut down.

I believe the Jackson of my day was really scaled for children. And then, in its very confinement to small and intimate size, it suggested the largeness of the surrounding world—you could see Jackson end and the country begin. This child’s imagination could take this in with the use of his won eyes. The family car ride showed it to him—our relationship with the surrounding world. When it was night, there was another sense of greatness. This lay in our view of the night sky. Jackson’s night sky, then, was not a blushing reflection of a neon city, but its own clear black—the perfect opposite, as it ought to be, from day. You could live anywhere in town and keep up with the stars. A child ordinarily could point out the constellations and name them, because they shone. And closer to hand, you could get the effect of lightening-bugs, too—flashing from backyard to backyard, street to street, field to field along country roads, then so near home.

January, 2018: A Garden Calendar

Intense cold has gripped the mid-South since New Year’s Eve, with lows well into the teens (15F here) and highs barely above freezing; the high today was 34F. The ground is frozen to at least an inch. Here is when I’m grateful I got the tulips and most of the daffodils in the ground before the cold set in. Also, finally I can cut and trim the asters and papyrus down to the ground. I’m unsure how the seedling greens (mustard and turnip) as well as the more mature vegetables at 1043 will do after the deep freeze. Inside plants are enduring. Plumeria still has about four green leaves. I’m nursing the bears’ ears; they’ve had a troubled year. Poinsettias and column cactus in the entry hall, along with cuttings from the shrimp plant, which was radiant this year. Good container plant. Many to put in the wall bed, the beefsteak begonia, the Dutch pipe, also the succulents. It’s going to be a better year, more orchestrated from one month to the other. Gotta pace yourself. Sow and see.

Much of the clay ground is frozen down to an inch, and the looser soil with plants is crusty, the plants drooping, but very green still. It’s amazing to see the Savoy cabbages in such good shape. The two-week seedlings will suffer most, the onions and other bulbs will profit best. We’ll need rain after this to baste the wounds and get the new growth going. This year, white marigolds, yes. More vegetables in the corner bed as well. Digging up the old “sidewalk” is the big project. The plot(s) are poised for a good year. Throw it all out there and see what happens.

Warmer and wet, typical pattern, 60s-50s-40s, soon to be below freezing again. Almost 100 poinsettias, more expected. Bulbs are so iffy, still trying to establish a formula for planting. Transplanted mustard surprisingly survived an intense freeze. Planted sprouting ‘Silver Skin” garlic from kitchen today. Inside plants maintaining. Going to Hutto’s with Bev and Wil tomorrow. Some of the ‘Red Devon’ poking over the soil in w. driveway bed, and in Dale and Kim’s beds/containers.

Poinsettias—approx. 100—covered under Visqueen against the back wall of the lot, but another cold spell will keep highs in the thirties and lows down to the teens again by the fifteenth and sixteenth (fifteenth MLK Day). To Hutto’s with Wil and Bev on the eleventh, brought (along with Visqueen) more red mustard (6) and dusty miller (12). The old paper-whites on Kenwood emerging though blistered by the cold. The snowdrops planted in Sept. (?) frost-bitten as well. Some of the ‘Red Devons’ emerging in westernmost plot. On second thought, these might be the snowdrops planted this past September?

Red mustard (6) and dusty miller (12+) from Hutto’s planted; the garden is still recovering from the extreme cold weather, though temperatures are now back to normal with highs in the low sixties/high fifties and lows in the forties/thirties. Spend the 205th-26th cleaning up, looks much better. Sowed more mustard/turnip, need to plant the last collards from seedlings. Sorted seeds today, need to order brown cotton? Should get Southern shield ferns from Ann Edwards on Manship to plant near compost pile.

I hope we have a good year for peaches.

The Flavor of Jackson

Welty’s use of foods in her fiction brings two notable examples to my mind; the “green-tomato pickle” in Why I Live at the P.O. and the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, not to mention the groaning boards in her Delta Wedding

But Welty  wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks that I know of, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was doubtless written in the mid-1930s.

More on that essay in a later post, but back to her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, which is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local front porch society publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor of any given publication in Jackson, she was–and likely still is–as sadly unfamiliar with Welty’s work as she is any Mississippi writer’s with the possible exception of John Grisham. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. 

Let me encourage Jacksonians to take note of the people she mentions and to write of what they know about them, perhaps even sharing personal memories. I also would like to know if any of you have heirloom copies of the recipes she mentions in the text, most particularly ‘Mrs. Lyell’s Lemon Dessert’, which has a particular cachet by virtue of its stellar pedigree. 

The Flavor of Jackson

Most Jacksonians would agree, I think, that Jackson has always characteristically dined at home and entertained at home, and does so still by first preference. It’s been out natural form of hospitality as of course its been the most logical and economical way to live.

There was indeed and for many years, the elegant dining room of the Edwards House ready for the important or large occasion. But we were too small a place and too far inland from the Gulf or New Orleans to have been heir to restaurants of another kind: one Mexican at his hot tamale stand, on the corner of North West and Hamilton during the cold months, couldn’t make us cosmopolitan. Rather than anything else, I think—and I like to think—the word for the Jackson flavor is “home”.

It was mostly the young who went forth with any regularity for outside refreshment. After the movies, the ice cream parlor. After “The Thief of Bagdad” at the Majestic, the other dime went for the strawberry ice cream soda at McIntyre’s. And wasn’t it Mr. Key’s Drug Store that seemed a functionable part of the Century Theatre? It had purple paper grapes on a cardboard trellis overhead—almost like a part of the stage scenery to come. Just before curtain time, my father took me in there and presented me with the box of Jordan’s Almonds—“bird eggs”—that was part of the theatre rite. Some tired road company would go through its Victor Herbert for us, but it was magic, all the same, and holding a “bird egg” in the mouth (impossible to swallow, in the excitement) was part of the magic.

When the whole family sallied forth for refreshment, it was very likely after supper on hot nights just before bedtime. They’d get in the car and drive to Seal Lily’s and have ice cream cones all around; it was best to hold them outside the car and eat them through the windows, and finish fast before the last bit melted.

But parties were given at home, and they started—I believe it was true for old and young—plenty early in the afternoon. You began eating around 3:30 and kept it up until you had entirely spoiled your supper. Party food drew its praises for how pretty it was (example, Bridemaids’ Salad, all white down to the white grapes) or for how much trouble the hostess went to make it (Pressed Chicken), but it’s a safe bet that all the refreshments were the successes they were because they were rich—thunderously rich.

Sometimes we branched out from home as far as Shadow Lawn. When parties were given there it wasn’t in order to save the trouble at home but to offer the guests a change—an al fresco in the quiet country air of the Terry Road. Some of our high school graduation “teas” took place at Shadow Lawn. The receiving line stood there on Miss Anita Perkins’s lawn, in the very early shadows, and the punch bowl waited on her porch, and there were her own delicious things to eat—frozen fruit salad was her specialty—and all was elegant. It was the era of the Madeira tea napkin. I believe I could say that more tea napkins were handed round at that high-minded time than I ever saw in my life, before or since. (And at least half of them must have been embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson. She too was very much a part of the flavor of Jackson.)

As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph.

Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch. There was a barrel of flour standing in the kitchen! Perhaps a sugar barrel too. The household may have provided (ours did) its own good butter (which implies a churn, and, of course, a cow), and its own eggs, and most likely it grew its own tomatoes, beans, strawberries, even asparagus. There’d be the seasonal rounds of the blackberry lady, appearing with her buckets at your door, and the watermelon man with his load, who’d plug you one to your taste, and the regulars sending their cries through the summer streets—“Butterbeans, snapbeans and okra!”—followed by the ice cream man, of course. Meat? Why your mother called up the butcher, talked to him, asked what was especially nice today, and let him send it. There was communication with butchers. And my father sometimes saw them, for he’d stop by on his way from the office and come bringing home by hand the little squared-off, roofed over, white cardboard bucket with the wire handles, fragrant and leaking a little—and produced oysters for supper, just ladled out of the oyster barrel that the butcher got in from New Orleans.

And of course they grated from whole nutmegs, they ground coffee from the beans, went to work on whole coconuts with the hatchet. Some people knew how to inveigle for the real vanilla bean. (Vanilla must have had a central importance in those days—think of all the cakes. Wasn’t there a local lady who made her living, and her entertainment, just selling vanilla extract over the telephone?)

Our mothers were sans mixes, sans foil, sans freezer, sans blender, sans monosodium glutamate, but their ingredients were as fresh as the day; and they knew how to make bread.

Jackson believed in and knew how to achieve the home flavor. And if ever there was a solid symbol of that spirit, one that radiates its pride and joy, it is the hand-cranked ice cream freezer. I see it established in a shady spot on a back porch, in the stage of having been turned till it won’t go around another time; its cylinder is full of its frozen custard that’s bright with peaches, or figs, or strawberries, its dasher lifted out and the plug in tight, the whole packed with ice and salt and covered with a sack to wait for dinner—and right now, who bids to lick the dasher?

I daresay any fine recipe used in Jackson could be attributed to a local lady, or her mother—Mrs. Cabell’s Pecans, Mrs. Wright’s Cocoons, Mrs. Lyell’s Lemon Dessert. Recipes, in the first place, had to be imparted—there was something oracular in the transaction—and however often they were made after that by others, they kept their right names. I Make Mrs. Mosal’s White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more, and in that cheeriest, most aromatic of places to celebrate in the home kitchen.

Jackson had its full plenty of recipes, but I hardly remember a cookbook. My mother had the only one I ever saw as a child, “The White House Cookbook”. I don’t recall which president’s wife was in headquarters at the time of our edition, but the book opened to a full-length drawing of a deer, complete with antlers, marked off with dotted lines to show how to cut it up for venison, which suggests poor Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt. The most useful thing about “The White House Cookbook” was its roomy size, for in between its pages could be stored the recipes jotted down on scraps of paper and old envelopes, that my mother really used. They accumulated themselves over the years from friends and relations and from her own invention and a time or two from the Mystery Chef who came in over the radio. She had a cookbook within a cookbook. She had some of the making, in fact, of the very sort of cookbook that this one (i.e. The Jackson Cookbook) is certain to be. Today there’s a cookbook available for every conceivable purpose and occasion, but in this one we come a full circle: we’re back again to the local using these cherished recipes we can make and delight in the fruits of Jackson itself.

I’d like to express the pious hope that we’re to find these recipes given in full. My mother’s don’t do me as much good as they might because she never included directions. Her reasoning, often expressed, was that any cook worth her salt would know, given a list of ingredients, what to do with them, and if she did come to a momentary loss while stirring up a dish—taste it! Cooking was a matter of born sense, ordinary good judgment, enough experience, materials worth the bothering about, and tasting. I had to sit on a stool while she made spoonbread and take down what I saw like a reporter, to get her recipe.

I can’t resist adding this, for I think it applies. John Woodburn was a New York editor who’d com through Jackson on a scouting trip for young unknown writers and spent a night at our house. He carried my first collection of stories back with him and worked very hard trying to persuade his editor to take them. Several years later, when he succeeded, he sent me a telegram to say, “I knew as soon as I tasted your mother’s waffles it would turn out all right.”




Image via Janine’s World