Come On 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.

The Bottle Tree

Joyce Sexton was proud of her garden. It occupied the edges of her back yard along the fences; broad beds of perennials punctuated by flowering shrubs whose Latin names she had memorized;  they sounded like an incantation as she recited them in her mind.

In the southwest corner was a short dead spruce stripped of twigs and leaves whose trimmed branches were adorned with brightly-colored glass bottles. Joyce enjoyed the way the glass caught the morning sun and reflected in the lights from the porch during the evenings. It had taken her months to find just the right bottles for the tree, and this morning she finally found the last one, a bright red bottle on top that seemed to glow from inside. She was admiring its light when she heard the front doorbell. She had invited her friend Sandra over for a drink.

“Well, it is pretty,” Sandra said later as they sat under the porch fans.

“At least you’ve got different bottles. I don’t like those with just one kind, especially those milk of magnesia models. They just send out the wrong signal, if you ask me.”

“I think it’s the best bottle tree in town,” Joyce said. “I know it sounds silly, but a bottle had to really say something to me before I put it on.” Sandra just stared at it with her arms crossed.

“You don’t like it?” Joyce said.

“Oh, like I said, it’s pretty, Joyce. And it looks good right next to the Lady Banks. But do you realize what those things are?’

Joyce laughed and said, “You mean that nonsense about trapping evil spirits? Cassandra June, your fanny hits a pew every time First Prez is open. And besides, you’re over-educated to boot. Surely you don’t believe that voodoo junk. ”

Sandra sipped her gin and tonic and smiled at her old friend. “Oh, you wouldn’t care if I were sacrificing stray cats in my basement, you’d still never get along without me.”

“If you were sacrificing stray cats, I’d bring you a few,” Joyce said.

“They kill the little birds, they yowl all night long and they beat up on poor Lucky.” A little terrier of dubious parentage under the table between them raised his head and thumped a raggedy tail.

“Okay, if you think its all stuff and nonsense, let me break one,” Sandra said. “Oh, don’t look so shocked. Admit you had fun looking for these bottles, and one of them’s bound to break sooner or later.”

Joyce thought about it. “Okay, you old witch,” she said. “But break one of the bottom ones. Use Glen’s putter. It’s over there on the corner.”

Sandra retrieved the putter, walked into the back yard and shattered a small green bottle on a lower branch. At the sound, Lucky jumped up and scrambled under the gate towards the street outside. Before Joyce could gather the breath to summon her dog, she heard the screech of brakes and a choked, mournful howl.

. . . . . . . . . .

“Mother, it was just an accident,” Rachel said. “Sandra shouldn’t blame herself. That’s just silly.”

Joyce looked at her daughter. She and Glen had been surprised when her infant golden hair had not only remained gold, but had also matured into a mane that Rachel merely pretended to complain about. Today she had wrestled it back into a tawny mass that spilled in a shower over the back of her bright blue scrubs.

“I know,” she said. “But you know how Sandra loved Lucky. She brought him liver snaps every time she came over. I think she did it on purpose; they always gave him gas.”

Rachel brought her coffee to the table and sat next to her mother. “Mom, just ride it out. I know you loved Lucky, too. Hell, we all did; except Richard, of course.” They both made a face at each other and laughed. “Cliff Stevens told me he was still wearing an ankle bracelet in Chattanooga,” Rachel said.

Joyce sipped from her cup and wished Richard were much further away. She still ran into his parents at parties, his father formal, his mother always managing to snag Joyce away from the crowd and update his doleful story. (“He didn’t mean anything, Joyce. You know that.”)

Rachel glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to go, Mom. Joe Wright told me I could scrub in on a valve replacement this morning.”
Joyce kissed her daughter and took her coffee to the patio. She called Glen at his office, forgot he was in court that day and ended up talking to his secretary Cathy about the upcoming office party.

“Glen’s just a mess about it,” Cathy said. “And I do mean a mess. He can’t decide on a damn thing, and that puts me in charge of everything from food to felonies. Would you please try to sit him down for five minutes and nail something down for me?”

“Oh, just do what you did last year, Cathy. It’s not like he’s going to notice.”

“I know,” Cathy said. “He’s such an airhead.”

Joyce laughed and said goodbye, went and poured another cup and settled back on the porch to admire her garden. The azaleas had exhausted themselves long ago, and the Shastas were now coming into their own, as were the hostas she’d planted last October. Lucky’s grave by the holly was marked with a shaggy little stone dog and a weathered scattering of liver snaps.

The bottle tree glistened in the morning sun. One bottle caught the light extremely well, a beer bottle Joyce found behind the back fence that had a white and blue label. The light it caught dazzled. Joyce laughed, picked a hand spade from her garden shelf, walked up to the tree and shattered the bottle into hundreds of pieces. She was still smiling when she heard the phone ring.

. . . . . . . . . .

“Joyce?”

Glen knocked gently at the barely open door. Joyce lay on the bed, the golden afternoon light pouring onto the floor and casting shadows upon morning windows.

“Joyce?”

He moved into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “Honey?”

“How did he get out?”

Glen turned, bowed and rubbed his hands together. “He’s been out.”

Joyce rolled over and looked at her husband’s back.

“It’s been eight years, Joyce. He was convicted as a juvenile. It was not a capital offense. He served five years, and then they put him in a rehabilitation unit. He was clean and sober; he had a job at a Walgreens. He was evaluated twice a month.”

“He just killed our daughter,” Joyce said.

Glen’s shoulders heaved and he began to sob. Joyce reached up and brought him to her and they lay there, crying, while the shadows grew on the wall.

. . . . . . . . . .

The summer office party was never conducted, but as the holidays approached, Glen suggested that the traditional year’s end celebration be held, and to his relief Joyce agreed. The firm had had a very good year, and Glen, as senior partner, always enjoyed giving out bonuses and promotions.

Predictably, it began on a muted note, but as the night progressed, the mood lifted and Joyce found herself enjoying being around friends. As they were driving home, she and Glen found themselves laughing about Cathy’s QVC jewelry and Jerry Wineman’s new toupee.
It was warm for a winter’s evening; wisps of fog were settling into the low places along the road, and the lights from the house glowed as they pulled into their drive.

Glen grabbed Joyce’s hand and said, “Let’s sit out on the back porch and have another drink.”

“No, Glen,” Joyce said, caressing his hand, “I’d rather not. Let’s just sit in the living room.”

Glen looked at her and said, “You used to love the porch. You used to love looking at the garden. What’s the matter?”

Then Joyce told him about the bottle tree, about Lucky, about Rachel. Glen sighed and said, “Oh, honey, you know that’s just ridiculous. What did they call it in college, synchronicity? Come on, let’s build a little fire in the fireplace and huddle up next to it on a blanket with a couple of beers.”

“I’d rather have a martini,” Joyce said.

After they’d changed, Glen settled Joyce in front of the fire with her drink. “Glen, I know it’s just a bunch of nonsense, coincidences, like you said.”

“Of course they were, and I know it, but I don’t believe you believe it.”

“I do,” Joyce said, “And I’ll prove it to you. Is your 12-gage in the hall closet?”

“Sure.”

Joyce retrieved the gun from the closet, along with a box of shells. “Show me how to load it again.” Once the gun was loaded, Joyce slung it over her shoulder and headed out the back door.

“If you stand back about ten yards, you ought to be able to get all of ‘em,” Glen shouted. He smiled, took off his shirt and sipped his beer. Then, with a smile, he slicked back his hair and lay down on the couch. A shot echoed from the backyard.

When Joyce came running back in, she said, “Glen, I got them all! And the trunk is in splinters. I’ll have a hell of a time cleaning up all the glass. Glen? GLEN!”

Chicken and Dumplings

Cut a chicken into quarters and simmer in a gallon of water with carrots, onions, and celery. When tender, remove chicken and bone. Return the bones to the pot and reduce by about a third, then strain and return liquid to simmer. You want a gallon of good, rich broth. Make a stiff biscuit dough with sweet milk; roll it out to about an eighth of an inch, cut into strips and drop into boiling broth. As the liquid thickens, add the chicken, cover and let boil for another minute, then reduce heat and cover. After five minutes, cut the heat, stir and cover. Let the pot sit for about another five minutes or so to cook the dumplings. Salt to taste. I like chicken and dumplings with a good dose of black pepper.

One Direction Home: A Review

“South Jackson as a place begins at 2155 Terry Road, the address of the city’s oldest home. It is the last remaining plantation house in the area. Today, an anomaly, a handsome Greek revival structure with Doric columns standing near Interstate 20’s cloverleaf, commercial enterprises and the decay of the Highway 80 Corridor.”

So begins One Direction Home: A History of South Jackson, by Dr. Vincent Venturini and former city commissioner Doug Shanks. Shanks recounts that the work began with a question: Were his fond memories of growing up in south Jackson just nostalgia, or was south Jackson truly a special place? The answer is, of course, yes and yes. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, particularly that of the sort leading to such a wonderful work as this. At once scholarly and informal, poignant and piercing, One Direction Home entertains and informs on many levels.

U.S. Highway 51 splits in Jackson, ending on South State Street to the east, and starting again on Terry Road some two miles to the west. When Terry Road emerges from the cloverleaf south of Highway 81, atop a broad ridge sits the Carmelite monastery housed in the aforementioned Greek revival home formerly owned by the Myrant family. The Myrant/Lester home is a focus for an early history of south Jackson, which is integral to that of the city and of Hinds County. Terry Road (Hwy. 51) provides an axis for the geography of the area, which Venturini describes as, “somewhat porous, but we largely see south Jackson as beginning at Highway 80 and extending south to Lake Catherine and west to Mississippi Highway 18. The eastern boundary is the Pearl River. We are also including Provine High School from its beginning until 1968. Although Wingfield High School opened in 1966 for students in the city’s southern section, those already enrolled in Provine were allowed to finish there. As pointed out in Doug’s Preface, Shoney’s is included as a south Jackson institution given the role it played in the lives of our contemporaries.”

And the time? While an early history is presented, Shanks claims, “What follows in the coming pages is a largely nostalgic visit to south Jackson as it existed between 1945 and 1975.” All Jacksonians will recall landmarks such as the Alamo Plaza, the “Chuc-Wagun”, the Frost Top, the Green Derby, Leavell Woods Park, Cook Center, Mart 51 and the Zodiac. They will also recall, among the many prominent south Jacksonians mentioned, Farmer Jim Neal of WSLI, Woodie Assaf of WLBT, “Skipper” Dick Miller of WJTV, Andrew Mattiache, and Walter Bivins. The neighborhoods, the churches, the schools, the streets, parks, and other elements that compose a city are part of this wonderful weave. The book has scores of wonderful photographs, and has a reassuringly extensive and detailed bibliography with notes.

One thing, though; Shanks and Venturini spend an inordinate time mentioning the proletarian reputation of south Jackson. This apologia is distracting, superfluous, and, most importantly, unnecessary. Let’s bear in mind that this is not Natchez, nor Vicksburg, but Jackson, Mississippi, a city no less a cosmopolitan than Audubon described in 1823 as “a mean place.” Sure, you’ll find people who will tell you one Jackson neighborhood is “better” than another, but many an outsider has found the entire city déclassé if not to say destitute. While no doubt many former and current south Jacksonians will find flaws and omissions (that assuredly only they could detect) all Jacksonians, even those (such as I) who aren’t natives, can celebrate this loving biography of a time, a place, a people, a portal in time to a backyard barbecue, a high school football game, or a corner soda fountain.

True Grits

I have before me an article out of one of those upscale magazines devoted to the South as an intellectual and cultural milieu. This magazine is printed on the finest paper, has photographs taken by talented people, and if you put it on your coffee table, you’re liable to impress someone with your je ne sais quoi.  Inside, an article on Southern food (ever-so-quaintly called “fixin’s”) targets “a grand grits revival.” The author cites grits pilaf, grits croquettes, stone-ground grits with morels, Southern fried grits, grits crackers, Logan Turnpike grits (God only knows what that is), and sweetbreads with grits as evidence of this renaissance.

People, this is chic commercial jive operating under the auspices of promoting a naturally progressive cuisine. Southern cooking is progressive; as new ingredients become available they’re assimilated into traditional recipes, often with good results, and as far as cultural assimilation is concerned, Southern cooking is a brilliant hodgepodge of distinct cultural influences, Native American, West European, and African, the tripod which forms the basis of the cuisine itself, and as new peoples with different traditions move into the region over time the such basic elements as grits as we know them will reflect these changes in wonderful ways we can’t begin to fathom. But a shotgun wedding with French cuisine (or any other cuisine, for that matter) is much too artificial to be taken seriously. This effort seems more intended to get people to pay exorbitant amounts for a serving of grits than it is to create a compatible blend of ingredients. For better or worse, grits are versatile; they’re essentially starch, as are potatoes, rice or pasta. But can you honestly claim as the author does that adding “innovative twists and fresh accents” such as morels and/or sweetbreads to grits that you have a dish that “reflect(s) the changing nature of the South”?

I think not. For one thing, these recipes are the products of commercial establishments, of upscale restaurants designed to attract diners who have the time and money to eat at high-end tables. Recipes such as these tend to be the brainchildren of down-home boys and girls raised on their mothers’ or grandmothers’ good Southern cooking who travel to France where they stay in Paris or Provençe, sopping up the local hubris, naturalizing their schoolroom French and drinking themselves into a pixilated delusion of fraternity with the local Jaques Bonhommes on the local vin ordinaire. While there, they of course become so enamored of le haute cuisine de la France that they decide to launch a personal crusade bent on transforming the cuisine bourgeoise of the American South into “exciting food.” This is to say, of course, food that people will pay a lot of money for because they are “infused with French accents . . . and render (sic) with some finesse.” For another thing, these commercial recipes are subject to the whims of restaurants, which are notorious for posturing. They have to be. If such recipes reflect the changing nature of the South, then the reflection is of a superficial and ephemeral nature. If foods can indeed be considered a barometer for a region’s or a nation’s changing identity—and they very well can, if examined properly—then foods should reflect such profound and lasting changes as those brought about by shifting demographics and to a somewhat lesser extent technological advances.

To be trendy and fashionable our dishes must be finessed. Is Southern food in, you say? Well, yes, but then it does need sprucing up a bit, doesn’t it? Let’s take that plain fried chicken and serve it on squash waffles with peach salsa. Black-eyed peas? Let’s puree them, pat them out into cakes and fry them in olive oil and serve them with an herb-laden tomato puree. Grits? Yes, with morels, sweetbreads and jalapenos, deep-fried and served with cranberry chutney . . . This cooking is catchy to be sure, but I hardly think it’s significant. Our best foods are narratives embedded in time and place, told by people for whom cooking is a conversation, not the monologues of flim-flam chef manqués.

Pulled Pork

You’ll find pulled pork with barbecue sauce as a sandwich filling is just about every roadside eatery across the South. Most people will argue that it’s the sauce that makes these sandwiches, and I belong to that school, but the flavor and (above all) texture of the meat are vital components in providing a platform.

The secret is the right cut braised slowly in a low heat, and the right cut is a shoulder roast, also known as a Boston butt or “picnic shoulder. This is an inexpensive cut of well-marbled meat that comes from the top portion of the front leg of the hog (despite the name “butt”). While a butt has a more fat, making it more tender, a bone-in shoulder is your best option for pulled pork, since it has more connective tissue for a better texture and the bone gives more flavor.

Make a spice blend of 3 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons granulated garlic, 2 tablespoons black pepper, and about 2 tablespoons of salt. You can add a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar to this. Mix with about 1/2 cup vegetable oil and rub over a 4-5 lb. shoulder roast pork, bone in. Peel and chop 2 small white onions, and place in the bottom of an oven roaster or slow cooker. If using a slow cooker, set it on low, if the oven, set at 250. The roast will take more time in the slow cooker, about 6-7 hours, somewhat less in the oven. When the meat is fork-tender, remove and discard fat and bone, and reserve the pot liquid with most of the fat drained off. Shred the pork into a lidded container and add enough of the reserved liquid for even moisture. This freezes beautifully.

The Southern Curry

Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up thinking of curry powder as a singular seasoning, not as the blend of herbs and spices it actually is. Even after I discovered that curries are spice blends, I was still unaware of the incredible number of varieties until my cousin Paige, who married into an Indian family, sent me Madhur Jeffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking and Ruta Kahate’s 5 Spices, 50 Dishes. Granted, I knew enough history to know that India is not so much a country as it is a sub-continent with an astounding number of peoples spread over one and a quarter million square miles, but still the intricacies of the cuisines left me reeling. Then there is curry powder itself, about which Jaffrey in her introduction on how to produce “that genuine flavor” says, “Let me start negatively by saying that what you don’t need is curry powder.” Curry, she says, is “a British oversimplification for what is universally regarded as a richly varied cuisine,” as degrading as “chop suey” for Chinese cooking. As no stranger to defeat, I knew that I was in way over my head.

I’ll keep working on the cuisine of Delhi, which is Jeffrey’s specialty, but while I’m still learning, I can always fall back on the one curry dish in the Southern repertoire, Country Captain, which is a chicken curry (there’s really no other way to describe it) from South Carolina. While Jeffery’s recipes will include precise measurements for seasoning mixtures (dare I call them curries?) with as many as eight or more herbs and spices, most recipes you’ll find for Country Captain simply call for “curry powder”, which is available in any supermarket. I used the McCormick blend with coriander, fenugreek, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, celery seed, nutmeg, cloves, onion, red pepper and ginger, which I’m content to consider a reasonably complicated if not authentic amalgamation. The recipe I used is a riff off Winifred Green Cheney’s in her Southern Hospitality Cookbook, which she, being a woman of A Certain Station and Age, assures us is a direct replica of that served by Mrs. W.L. Bullard of Warm Springs, Georgia, who “often served her famous dish to the late Franklin D. Roosevelt”, but you can find a good recipe for Country Captain in any Junior League-style cookbook.

Aunt Beck’s Chicken Pie

In Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles, this is the dish Beck Beecham brought to Granny Vaughn’s 90th birthday gathering. She brought it especially for her nephew, Jack, who escaped from Parchman to be home for the celebration. Welty claimed, “I always heard it was a Methodist dish.”

1 young chicken (about 4 lbs.)
6 small white onions
2 ounces bacon, cut in small cubes
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
3 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Pastry to cover a 9-inch pie

Boil the chicken in highly seasoned water and allow to cool in its broth. Separate the meat from skin and bones, leaving the chicken in large pieces. Boil the onions in salted water until tender, but not mushy, and drain. Fry the bacon until tender, without browning; remove from frying pan and set aside. In the remaining fat, cook the flour over very low heat for 3 minutes, then gradually stir in 21/2 cups of the broth in which the chicken was cooked. Add parsley, celery, salt and pepper, simmer for 6 minutes. Put half the quantity of bacon, half the chicken pieces, half the quantity of onions and half the quantity of eggs in the baking dish. Lay on the remaining pieces of chicken, add the rest of the other ingredients and pour the sauce over all. Cover with rich pie pastry, pressing down the edges with a fork. Brush with milk and make several slashes for the steam to escape. Bake in a hot oven (450° F) for 15 minutes, reduce heat to moderate (350° F) and bake 30 minutes longer. Serve at once with succotash.
Serves 6.

Buttery Cheese Wafers

Simply make a dough with one cup plain flour, one cup grated sharp cheddar and one stick of softened butter, add a little salt, a little white pepper, roll out, shape with a cookie cutter, and bake at 350 until nice and crisp, about 10-15 mins. Dust with a good, smoky paprika and enough cayenne thrown in to piss off the preacher.

Stuffed Focaccia

Cut bread horizontally, brush with olive oil infused with an Italian-type herbal blend and layer with mozzarella, black olives, and finely-minced shallots. Assemble, brush crust with more of the oil and herbs, and bake in a moderate oven for until top is crisp and cheese is melted through. Cut into sticks and serve immediately.