Bluebill’s Barbecue

This delightfully warm and rambunctious account of a political barbecue in Mississippi was submitted to the Federal Writer’s Project in the early 1940s. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that the excoriating political jargon may well have been patterned after one of T.G. Bilbo’s more vituperative speeches. Finding that the cook and I share a surname was a pleasant surprise, but entirely coincidental.

Just as sure as taxes come due before the year is out, politics comes of age in Mississippi ere fall settles down. Our crop has been made and, plow-weary as the soil itself, we take to politics like some folks take to drink. It’s the only sure-fire emotional outlet we know.

An office seeker with his nose to the wind senses that this is the time to ply his trade. Being one of us he knows that the voting fruit is now growing in bunches and ready for the plucking. ware, too, that the common run of old-time picnics is as dead as last year’s boll weevil, he gathers his, cohorts about the conference table, calls for a pooling of resources, and schemes up a barbecue. For, voting year or not, Mississippi politics takes on the nature of an epidemic and we rely on the mass eating of barbecued meat as a counter-irritant.

Even the novice candidates are invited to show what they can do, but the cook and the principal speaker should be old hands, famous for miles around, for we have a long way to come and the fare must be to our liking. Certainly, if the candidate for high office is one of our most famous and able villifiers, and if the pit artist is Bluebill Yancy, we’ll be there.

Bluebill is a black man with a head like a cypress knee. They call him blood brother to the Ugly Man, but if he’s short on looks, he’s long on cooking, and barbecue meat is his specialty. Bluebill and his henchmen are hard at work when we arrive on the grounds so we know that the weather, at least, is favoring the candidates. For Blue bill works according to the stages of the moon and has been known to call the whole thing off at the slightest show of thunder on cooking night. We pass the time of day with Dicey, Bluebill’s wife, who isn’t allowed within smelling distance of the pit until she sees Bluebill sharpen up his knives for the carving; the meat can’t “breathe freely” with a woman cook around.

We pay our respects to Uncle Si Curtis who has already nailed a plank between two trees for his lemonade stand. Uncle Si is one of the best singing school leaders in the county, and when he swings into “Mercy’s Free,” where it says “Swell, oh, swell, the heavenly chorus,” he can be heard as far away as the old burnt schoolhouse. Using the same technique to drum up trade for his spring-water lemonade, he leans against a tree and opens up:

“Ice cold lemonade!
Made in the shade,
Stirred with a spade,
Good enough for any old maid!”

Uncle Si’s crowd thins out as the preliminary speaking begins. We listen to the soaring oratory with one ear and the sizzling of Bluebill’s meat The beef has been cooking all night over the embers of green hickory wood and its peppery odor has had our nose twitching since we first drove up. Bluebill’s pit is a ten-footer with wire mesh stretched over a fire coaxed down to smokeless coals. We pace the pit with him on one of his endless rounds — up one side to turn the meat, down the other to baste it with his mopping sauce. As the moist, brown hunks of beef approach perfection, Bluebill continues his rounds, proud as a monkey with a tin tail.

While the main speaker is warming up, we move from one group of friends to another. The sonorous voice damns the tariff and the Republican party. We nod our head. He touches on the sacredness of the ballot, the virtues of Southern womanhood, and we are in accord. He promised to fight, bleed and die to keep the ship of state a float and we say “amen.”

He pauses for dramatic effect, and after mopping his perspiring brow, starts in to rant, abuse, belittle and attack the opposition. We edge closer because this is what we came to hear. The speaker describes his opponent as a “shallow-brained, slack-jawed liar; a bull ape of Mississippi politics; a grave baboon cavorting like a fat pony in high oats.” We push a bit nearer the speaker’s stand, anxious to hear every word, hoping he’ll let the hide go with the horns and the tallow.

“Like a parasite of the highest rank,” the candidate roars, “he has been feeding from the public trough for twenty years, fattening the bosom of his trousers. It is time that the voters of this commonwealth rise up in indignation and turn him out to pasture and elevate to office men who won’t jump down their throats and gallop their insides out.”

Whether we agree with the speaker or not, we admit it’s pretty pert language, We figure maybe he is right, but for the moment the mention of feeding has suggested something and soon we take ourselves over to the pits to see how Bluebill is getting along with the beef, which has been roasting over the hickory fire for fourteen hours. Taking his cue from the orator, Bluebill dabs on more hot stuff, dressing it down with the same vigor the candidate uses on his opponent.

There is always an outsider who doesn’t know any better than to ask Blue bill for his mopping sauce recipe. His answer is as evasive as it is voluble. He recites it like a grocery list: vinegar, bay leaves, lemon, paprika, pickling spice, onions and garlic. To make it “good and delicious” Bluebill says go heavy on the garlic and paprika. If he is really annoyed by the questioning, he will recommend the generous use of a butter substitute as the base for his concoction. If only mildly so he will suggest cow butter. Catch him off guard when things are going well in the pits, and Bluebill will admit that he, himself, uses nothing but chicken fat.

Bluebill, having made what he calls his “politeness” turns to mopping his beef, and the bewildered recipe-seeker has to listen once more to the politician who, at this time, is working up to the climax punch. In a moment he will let us have it with both fists and leave us groggy and hanging on the ropes. Recoiling from the political punches, a neighbor asks us to have a drink of his best corn liquor, and we don’t care if we do. The candidates, wilted and weary from their efforts on the speakers’ stand, likewise have a good stiff one back in the bushes.

Meanwhile there is a mass movement toward the long table. Dicey paddles over from the edge of the clearing and gets there just as Bluebill draws a blade across the first outside piece. Some of our own women lay off cooing at the babies and line up behind the table to make the same woman-noise over the cakes and potato salad. For our part, we pass up all such trimmings. Armed with a slice of bread and a hand quicker than Bluebill’s knife, we aim for the outside piece, and make it.

The crowd gives way a little for the speakers to be served. After having bethumped each other with hard words, the candidates chat over their food as though it had miraculously brought them to terms. We ourselves share a dipper of spring water with a man we never liked and politics for the moment is forgotten. Even a Mississippi man just can’t keep on devouring barbecued beat and political speeches without gradually losing appetite. But we sorta have to stick around in the afternoon to hear our neighbors who are running for local office. We sit back to watch their antics and stay ready to have a good time if they work up a spat about something. Actually, what’s on our minds is the need for getting along home to see about the stock. It’s a far piece and we want to be there before first dark.

Water Valley’s First Watermelon Carnival

The Watermelon Carnival is Water Valley’s most prized annual celebration. An estimated 20,000 people attend the various events, always set the first weekend in August.

The first carnival was held on Thursday, August 27, 1931. At that time, the entire nation was in the grip of the depression. In Water Valley, a bank had failed, the railroad had pulled out, and unemployment was high. Local businessmen were concerned about the spirit of the townspeople, so they decided to host a carnival to boost morale.

The Watermelon Carnival consisted of a parade, a pageant to name the carnival queen, and a formal ball. Festivities were repeated for nine consecutive years, and then halted with the outbreak of World War II. The Watermelon Carnival lay in dormancy until 1980, when it was successfully revived.

This account of the first carnival appeared in vol. 20, no. 4 of the Illinois Central Magazine.

The weather man predicted rain; yet early Thursday morning, August 27th, cars began arriving in Water Valley, Mississippi, for the Watermelon Carnival, the crowd continuing to grow until 12,000 to 20,000 persons could be counted. All wore holiday clothes and entered into the spirit of the day. C.R. Pitts, manager of the Yalobusha Democrat, presented the Watermelon Carnival idea to the people; then the Water Valley Junior Chamber of Commerce voted to sponsor the Carnival, and, receiving the cooperation of other civic organizations and private citizens, has made the Watermelon Carnival the outstanding attraction in North Mississippi, embodying a program which is unexcelled in beauty and originality.

Ever since Yalobusha County has been settled watermelons have been raised on the farms. Each farm had a small ‘patch’ of watermelons for private use. Occasionally a few choice melons were brought to town in the farm wagon and offered for sale on the streets. Only in recent years have melons been produced for outside markets.

The production of watermelons in this section has been a gradual growth until in 1930 more than 100 carloads of watermelons were shipped by rail from Water Valley and many more were transported by trucks. Water Valley melons are known for their superior flavor. The sandy loam, found in the hills of Yalobusha County, is especially adapted to the production of watermelons. The land is thoroughly broken and laid off in “hills” eight feet apart. Each hill 18 fertilized. If barnyard fertilizer is used, the fertilizer is placed under the hill during the winter or long enough in advance of planting so that the fertilizer is thoroughly decomposed and will not heat. When this method is used, the hills are marked by pegs so that the seed may be planted on top of the fertilizer in the hill. Planting takes place as soon as the danger from frost has passed. Cultivation consists of ordinary plowing and hoeing, to keep the ground loose and to destroy weeds and grass, care being taken not to injure the roots or vines. When the vines have attained a sufficient growth, the crop is “laid by”, and at maturity the vines cover the field solidly from hill to hill.

Some of the varieties of melons planted in Yalobusha County are Renter’s Wonder, Texas Jumbo, Klecky Sweet, Stone Mountain, Irish Gray, Honey Dew, Halbert’s Honey, Lem Green and Schockler; and some of the principal growers are W.E. Walker, Joe Holt, Jim Hayles, Will Hayles, Fred McCracken, W.0. Champion, Charlie Goodwin, Ernest and Joe Stone, Clarence Hervey, Dixie Davis, Robert and Ben King. Ten acres is considered a big field for one man. The average yield per acre is about 30,000 pounds. Prices range from 33 1/3 cents to $1.00 per hundred pounds, varying according to the season and the grade of melons.

When the melon is ripe, the ‘curl’ which grows out of the stem dies. One may judge of the melon’s condition by the sound brought forth by thumping it with the finger. A melon pulled green never ripens. A prime melon pulled when ripe will usually be in good condition for ten days or two weeks, without extra care, and will keep indefinitely in cold storage.

The Carnival Program “The carnival program on August 27th was ushered in by the noise of many instruments as the crowd began gathering. The Holly Springs’ band concert was the social program’s first number. Kermit Cofer was master of ceremonies and introduced the principal speaker of the morning, Congressman W.M. Whittington of Greenwood, Mississippi, who addressed the farmers in keeping with the spirit and intent of the occasion. During the day thousands visited the melon display where the largest melons produced in this section as well as other farm products were to be seen. There were ten melon and garden display booths that aroused the admiration of the throngs.

At 1:30 o’clock in the afternoon talks were made by Congressman Jeff Busby, H.J. Schweitert (general agricultural agent of the Illinois Central system) and L.A. Olsen, extension director of the A. and M. College at Starkville. At 3 o’clock a baseball game between the Jolly Cabs of Memphis and a home team, with Water Valley winning 5 to 2.

At 4 o’clock an important part of the carnival was the cutting of 1500 ice-cold melons. The melons were passed out over the long tables to the thousands. The melons were purchased by the Junior Chamber of Commerce from the many growers in the County. A number of special varieties were donated.

At 7 o’clock one of the most elaborate parades ever seen in Mississippi proceeded from Blount Street north to Court Street around the City Park and returned to Blount Street in the following order: mayor’s car of welcome; official decorator’s car; Sardis Drum and Bugle Corps; 155th Mississippi Infantry, Company G, Aberdeen, Mississippi; Captain E. L. Sykes in command; Curtis E. Pass Post, American Legion, and visiting ex-service men; American Legion float; W.S. Turnage Drug Company’s decorated car; Memphis Band and Orchestra, Oakland Mississippi; merchants’ float; Kraft Cheese Company’s decorated car; McCullar-Suratt float; Indian Tribe on move; T.P.A. float; R.L. Mann’s Floral Garden float; Chapman Service Station float; decorated car of Mrs. John Dalton; Memphis Illinois Central System Band; ‘Queen’s float’, queen and princesses; decorated car of Lee’s Hardware and Furniture; Water Valley Rotary Club float; Oak Grove Dairy float; U.S. Post Office float; O’tuckolofa Consolidated School float; Will Henry’s thirty piece band; United Daughters of the Confederacy’s float; Henry Ford’s special car; Martha and George Washington; W.B. Moorhead and Company’s float; Peoples’ Wholesale float; decorated car Water Valley Hospital; float of three banks; float of Grand Theatre; two floats of Hendricks Machine Shop; Babe Ross’ famous clown band of fifteen pieces; Ford caravan headed by their special built radio and victrola on truck followed by sixteen latest models of Ford cars and trucks.

One of the most impressive floats in the parade and one which was as typically southern as the watermelon festival, was the float which was entered by the Daughters of the Confederacy. This float represented ‘The Old South’, a picturesque old carriage, of the antebellum period, which was covered with 1500 home-grown, old-fashioned red and white (the Confederate colors) hollyhocks! B. Leland, a veteran of the War Between the States, who is the father of Mrs. A.D. Caulfield (the Illinois Central’s superintendent’s wife), represented a plantation owner of the sixties; his posing, in character, made the U.D.C. float seem a reality. Mary Lynne Brown was a true picture of early Confederate womanhood; while Charlotte Blackston, daughter of Engineer and Mrs. H. R. Blackston, was a dainty reproduction of a young lady of our revered ‘old South’. The red-and-white hollyhock covered antebellum carriage, entered as a float by the members of the local U.D.C., was drawn by two bay horses, and was preceded by four ‘outriders’, one of whom–‘ Uncle’ Frank McFarland, a negro veteran of the War Between the States–had enlisted with his master and had remained in active military service under the Confederate flag with his master during those memorable days.

The Illinois Central platform was decorated to represent a large watermelon patch (sand, vines and watermelons being used for the natural effect); where, after the parade, Mrs. E.L. McVey directed a beautiful pantomime composed of more than fifty little children who represented flowers, butterflies, birds (large ones, of course) and happy children disporting themselves in the watermelon patch. The fairy pantomime was followed by the crowning of the Watermelon Carnival’s Queen, who was Eleanor Houston, daughter of Chief Dispatcher and Mrs. L.S. Houston of the Illinois Central System.

After presenting a silver loving cup to the Watermelon Carnival Queen, Miss Houston, and as the conclusion of the coronation, Edwin Blackmur (president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce), with the queen, led the grand march for the street dance, followed by ten princesses of the. Watermelon Carnival. Each princess was accompanied in the grand march by a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. The big Watermelon Camival program closed with a magnificent display of fireworks including six beautiful bet pieces, one of which portrayed a watermelon, twelve special arena pieces, and fifty-two aerial bombs, the display being handled by G.L. Gafford, chief clerk to the Illinois Central Superintendent.