The other day my car was being repaired. I had it in the shop for an oil pump problem. I say it’s a car; maybe it’s a truck. I don’t know. It’s a twenty-two year old Jeep Cherokee with crank windows. Nothing fancy and that’s what I like about it. It was cold that morning so I put on my insulated boots with warm packs placed in each toe like hunters do, bundled up with my fingerless gloves, packed my painting kit, and set out walking around the block.
I saw a few people who might have thought I was indigent. I know the look. I’m loaded down like all I have is what I’m carrying. These things are my most valuable possessions. Walkers pass by not saying anything when, if I were dressed nicer and not for painting in the cold, they would probably say hi. I saw some people who recognized me and wandered why I was in the neighborhood. I explain I got married last March and we live around the corner. I’m out looking for something to paint. Things always look different on foot. Nothing is speaking to me yet. Then I come upon a painter friend of mine. We chat about the things going on in each of our lives and I reach down to pet her three legged dog. We say our goodbyes and as they are walking away I see a painting there.
I make a quick mental sketch of her and her companion. I begin setting up. I turn my AirPods on and begin listening to shuffling music. A car stops and a person is looking for some keys that may or may not have been dropped nearby. No luck. A young lady stops with a Polaroid camera and explains she is working on a series of photos depicting the neighborhood. Another car stops to drop off a meal on wheels to an older person. Then I get a call from my mechanic who says he’s going to need another day to finish the oil pump job. It’s okay. It’s all okay.
It’s been a little over two hours and I’m nearly through. It’s best not to get too through. I take a phone photo and post it like I always do. It feels good but I am not sure if it’s the painting or the process of seeing; but it does feel good. Then, I’m flooded with another feeling that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. All because an oil pump broke and a walk around the block.
My friend John Wills, a fine cook who grew up in east Texas, went to high school in Chicago, attended college in Alaska and now lives in Maine, told me that of all the Southern recipes he brings to the table, the one that most of his guests remember and ask about is pound cake. To be honest,” he said, “I think a lot of people also believe it’s popular in the South because you didn’t have to be able to read to make it, all you had to remember was a pound each of butter, flour, eggs and sugar.”
These days you’ll rarely find a pound cake recipe that doesn’t include milk in some form; Egerton’s “half-pound” recipe in Southern Food (1987) has whole cream. A good pound cake recipe is essential to any cook’s repertoire, and the best to have is a good sour cream version. This recipe comes from Jackson native Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976). “With no exceptions,” she writes, “this is the best pound cake I have ever tasted.” As with most of Winifred’s recipes, this one is ludicrously meticulous; an eighth of a teaspoon of salt? Resift three times? Honestly.
1/2 cups butter, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup commercial sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour, measured after sifting
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon flavoring (vanilla, lemon, or 1/2
teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond)
Cream butter by hand or an electric mixer until it has reached the consistency of whipped cream. When you think you have creamed it enough, cream some more. Slowly dribble in sugar a tablespoon at a time; beat well. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in sour cream. Put measured flour into sifter with soda and salt, and resift three times. Add flour cup at a time to creamed butter, blending well with mixer on lowest speed. Add flavoring. (I use vanilla and almond along with 2 tablespoons brandy.) Pour batter into one Bundt pan and one small loaf pan or two large (cake, see below: jly) pans, greased and lined with heavy waxed paper. Bake in a preheated 325° oven: Bundt cake for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. small loaf for about 55 minutes, large loaves for 65 minutes or until cake tests done. Cool on rack 15 minutes and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Remove from pan and allow to continue cooling to prevent sweating. Yield: 1 (10-inch) Bundt cake and 1 (7- x 3- x 2-inch) loaf cake or 2 (9- x 5- X 3-inch) cakes—40 to 44 servings.
Sweet black tea with lemon was a favorite of the oppressive czarist nobility, and under that guise Russian tea became a staple of pretentious Southern households in the early twentieth century before succumbing to white trash cookbooks in the 70s. For many a winter beverage, the revisionist in me finds it comforting on these last few cool nights of spring before summer’s onslaught.
4 big tea bags
3 quarts water
2 cups pineapple juice
1 cup orange juice
Juice of two lemons
3 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons whole cloves
Boil water, remove from heat, and immediately add the tea bags. Remove bags in EXACTLY five minutes or the tea will have a ‘bite’. Add other ingredients, and keep on a low heat for at least an hour before serving. This freezes easily.
I am not from Jackson, nor (even worse) am I from Belhaven. This relegates me to troglodyte status to the natives to this fair city, but before you begin casting aspersions (or something sharper and heavier) let me assure you that Seta Sancton’s The World from Gillespie Place goes a very long way towards explaining why I and others love it so.
Given my primeval ignorance, of course I had to find out who Mrs. Sancton was, and given that I know so few people here, I decided to simply do what I do best and research the matter. This eventually led me to contact Tom Sancton, who among other things is former Paris bureau chief for TIME magazine, professor of journalism at the American University of Paris, Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane and a jazz clarinetist to boot. He’s also likely to be one of those irritating people who complete the NYTimes crossword even before they finish their second cup of coffee. In response to my query, Mr. Sancton wrote:
Seta Alexander Sancton (1915-2007) was my mother. She was born in Jackson, on North State Street, into a prominent local family (Whartons on mother’s side, Alexanders on father’s side). Her father was Julian P. Alexander, a graduate of Princeton and Ole Miss law school, and an associate justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. She graduated from Millsaps College, where she was a member of Chi Omega. She was a close personal friend of Eudora Welty, a neighbor from childhood. (My mother’s family lived first on Gillespie Place, then at 1616 Poplar Blvd; Eudora was on Pinehurst.) Seta married my father, New Orleans journalist and novelist Thomas Sancton, in 1941. They lived mostly in New Orleans and had three children of which I am the youngest. When my mother was in her 70s, she decided to write down some family stories and memories for her children and grandchildren. She started jotting down stories on notepaper, the back of envelopes, whatever she had at hand, adding stick figure illustrations as she went along. The result was the book you have in hand. In the 1990s she recorded readings of some of the stories.
Seta’s book is the memoir of city full of “sugar and spice and everything nice”, of June bugs and fig trees, lavender lantana and magnolia musk, braided biscuits, sidewalk parades, and ragtime on the Victrolas. “Though Edward VII was no longer on the throne,” Seta writes, “the temper of the times remained Edwardian for our mothers, our grandmothers and for us children.”
The World from Gillespie is a world where maids took children to Smith Park to play on the swings and slides, feed the swan, and eat sugar cookies in the miniature Greek pagoda. Home libraries offered volumes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson and the best-selling works of Zane Gray. Gillespie Place itself was a new subdivision off State Street, and having a mother who was Episcopal and a father who was a Presbyterian was awkward. Going to the state fair was a landmark event as was going downtown to eat at the Bon Ton, the Pantaze, or the Edwards House. Seta’s eyes are filled with the genteel character of Jackson during the 1920s. Yes, of course poverty and oppression were rife at the time, but those and other unpleasantries such as war and epidemics are set aside for bridge luncheons, birthday parties, dragonflies, and swimming in Livingston Lake.
I’m charmed by this picture of Jackson’s past, watch for glimpses of it now, and see it every day. Memory, my children, is a living thing.