Watermelon Salad with Bacon and Feta

While you can buy watermelons year-round, it’s just not a good idea to purchase a melon in the winter. Chances are, these melons are the tail-end of a second-field crop from Central America and will look and taste like pink cucumber. I’ve gotten decent melons at the tail end of May, and I’ve even had a few November melons from the Missouri boot heel that were really good, but as a general rule, melon season in the American South corresponds quite neatly with our hurricane season, which runs from June through September, with August the peak month. It’s also not a good idea to buy seedless watermelons because watermelon seeds release an enzyme that promotes the ripening process. You’ll find people who’ll tell you a seedless watermelon can taste just as good as one with seeds, but in my personal experience this simply does not hold true.

Buy a watermelon that is proportionate; do not get one that is narrow at one end, because the smaller end will be unripe; the stem and flower scab should both be in the very center of their respective ends of the fruit. Another good sign of a ripe watermelon is a yellow bottom, sure evidence that it has ripened on the ground. When it comes to thumping a watermelon, don’t thump it: knock on it; take your knuckles and rap on it like you would a door. Listen for a hollow sound, not a tight sound. It should be firm and heavy for its size.

Watermelon Salad with Bacon and Feta

Fry or broil lean bacon until crisp. Season with freshly-ground black pepper, break into pieces and sprinkle over chilled, cubed watermelon along with pieces of feta (you can also use a blue cheese for this). Sliced chilled cucumbers are a nice option. A little fresh lime adds zest to the flavors.

 

Dramatic Peas

As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns. Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies or L’Amours, not to mention the latest John Grisham. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read in the first place.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels of unshelled peas. Being a reformed kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders and retreated—talking up a storm—back into the TV room. I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.” Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

 

Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee

It was the third of June, another hot and dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was bailin’ hay.

So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about Billy Joe McAllister’s suicide in the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.

Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.

Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.

“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”

Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”

Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.

Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.

The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”

The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.

Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.

For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”

Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”

Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.

Bobbie Lee has become as much a mystery as Billy Joe.

 

Peach Pavlova

June means fresh peaches in Mississippi, where we get the best in the world. The early varieties are usually cling, meaning the pit adheres to the flesh of the fruit, while later varieties are freestone, with a pit that’s easily removed. Chilton County, Alabama peaches enjoy a vaulted reputation in Mississippi, but north central Mississippi growers, particularly in Pontotoc and Lafayette counties, have in recent years provided the markets with wonderfully succulent fruit.

A pavlova is meringue base or shell filled with whipped cream and fruit, a dessert, light as a ballerina, and this patronym is the only thing about the dish that’s agreed upon. Australians claim that it was invented in a hotel in Perth, but any respectable Kiwi will bristle at the thought. Then there are those who will tell you that a pavlova meringue should have a soft center while others insist it should be dried and crisp throughout. Suit yourself.

Meringues have a reputation for being tricky and if you’re clumsy they are. The egg whites mustn’t contain a bit of fat, so make sure no yolk remains, and don’t whip them in a plastic bowl. Bring the whites to room temperature before whipping (use a mixer, trust me on this), and while back in the day humid weather could make a meringue heavy, in air-conditioned homes it’s not a factor. Vinegar or lemon juice helps stabilize the froth, and don’t add sugar until the soft peak stage. See? What’d I tell you? Not tricky at all.

Chinese gooseberry—renamed the kiwi fruit by New Zealanders in a brazen attempt at origin status—and passion fruit are “original”, strawberries and blueberries are traditional, but any fruit can be used. Pavlovas can also be made with chocolate and caramels, candies and nuts. We’re getting in the best peaches of the year now, which make a beautiful pavlova.

Preheat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a circle in the middle. parchment paper. For one meringue base, whip four egg whites until the peaks are soft. Gradually add one cup confectioner’s sugar, a spoonful at a time, until the whites are glossy, then gently blend in a teaspoon each vanilla extract and lemon juice and two teaspoons cornstarch. Spoon meringue onto the parchment paper circle. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, leaving a slight depression in the center. Bake for half hour, more if the center feels squishy. Top or layer with whipped cream and fruit. Chopped pistachios and/or almonds are a nice touch.