Menu for a Delta Wedding

Food rarely plays a significant role in fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. Adam Gopnik lists four kinds of fictional food: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character, which seems to be predominant, Gopnik serves up Proust. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This Faulkner does as well with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Welty, whose novel Delta Wedding, in itself the most lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta on the eve of or in the 1920s, a delightful, warm-hearted and spellbindingly-written work, is a Southern (perhaps “the most Southern”) smorgasbord. Though three main meals are described–a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards–people are eating all the time on almost every page of this book. This a listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household in the South during the Coolidge administration. In both Faulkner and Welty, the food is a prop, a signature of their collective character, not a judgement.

Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him), licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger Stage Planks, bananas and cheese, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelons and greens.

As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes to Welty, who is not only subtle and understated, but knows food as few writers do, it’s easy to miss things; read Delta Wedding again, if for that reason alone.

Street Corn

Shuck, scrub, and dry ears of fresh sweet corn, trim ends, brush with corn oil and grill or sear in a skillet. (Street stands use a salamander.) Skewer and set aside to cool. Make a paste with ½ cup mayonnaise and ½ cup hard grated cheese; if you don’t have cojita, Parmesan is fine, but a 50/50 mix of Parm and feta is better. Add a tablespoon of chili powder, add another and maybe a little salt. Spread the paste on the corn, and chill before serving.

 

An Epicure at Piney Woods

By the middle of the last century, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known to the world of letters as M.F.K. Fisher, had established herself as the preeminent culinary essayist in the English language. Her visits to Dijon, Vevey and Provence resulted in works such as Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942) and The Gastronomical Me (1941). Those and her translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin (1949) had garnered her praises from around the globe. W.H. Auden said of her, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose,” no small acclaim in the age of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.

In 1964, Fisher had just finished the stunning Map of Another Town, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker in January. Subtitled “A Memoir of Provence”, the work marks a departure from her gastronomical memoir-cum-recipe format since the book is built not around food but around places: the cours Mirabear, the Deaux Garcons, La Toronde and other sites associated with Aix-en-Provence. She had established herself as a writer, but she had already told friends she wanted to do something different: she wanted to teach. Other than a writing workshop in Utah in 1954 and various public speaking engagements, she had no teaching experience.

She also lacked sufficient academic credits to qualify for certification at public schools, but private schools like Piney Woods offered leeway in the matter of credentials and she entertained the idea of teaching English literature, basic composition, home economics (try to imagine taking home ec from M.F.K. Fisher) and tutoring students in French, Spanish and Italian. “I’ll be working with students in advanced high school and junior college who are preparing for the ministry, the law, teaching and medicine. I’ll also be working with students who have come from the most God-forsaken rural areas in the state. The main thing is that they will be there because they WILL it, and not because it is the easiest, coziest and most indicated way to social and economic success.”

Fisher first heard about Piney Woods in the early 1920s when their gospel choir performed at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, where the teen-aged Mary Frances and her younger sister were enrolled. For some time afterwards, her mother Edith subscribed to the Piney Woods bulletin and regularly sent donations of money and books, which her daughter continued to do for decades. In her letters to family and friends in the early months of 1964, M.F. wrote of her preliminary discussion with Dr. Laurence Jones, the founder of Piney Woods, about her plans to volunteer her services at the school and her reasons for doing so, saying that she had “almost finished the active mother-role and that I am destined to go to waste unless I make some strong move.”

The year 1964 was a sadly historic one for Mississippi; the state had become a battleground in the American struggle for civil rights. Fisher confessed that she was no martyr to the cause of racial equality, and “as for accepting and being accepted, I honestly think that would soon take care of itself, easily and thoroughly . . . there would be suspicion of my motives at first, as is very understandable . . . so many white people want to ‘help’ but, are conditioned too far back to be anything but self-conscious about it, and I seem to be born without a racial conscience or whatever it is.” She was not being altruistic at all, she was doing this for herself because after so many comfortable years in St. Helena and so many years of raising her daughters to be citizens of the world, she now had her back to the wall and needed Piney Woods as much as or more than the school needed her.

After sharing her plans with family (to mixed responses), Fisher boarded the California Zephyr in San Francisco on June 22. Once in Chicago, she boarded a train bound for Jackson, some twenty miles from Piney Woods. During that time radio broadcasts and news coverage focused on the disappearance of two white civil rights workers from New York, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and their black activist host, James Chaney, who were the first casualties of what was to become known as the “Freedom Summer”. On August 4, the FBI would discover the inhumed bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and the South would explode in acts of violence and bigotry

But at Piney Woods, the focus was on work and education. Fisher said that the students were “too busy for trouble.” She eased into teaching with noncredit courses on fables (“from Aesop to Thurber”) and also tutored a handful of students. She lived in the comparative luxury of an air-conditioned mobile home of a faculty member who was away on vacation and ate most of her meals in the dining hall, which she considered disastrous because of the emphasis on starchy foods. It should be noted that Fisher did dine at the famous Revolving Tables in the Mendenhall Hotel, but records of the meal and her impressions of it are if in existence unavailable.

Fisher was at Piney Woods for a very short time, less than six months all told: two school terms, a summer and a fall. Despite the miserable Mississippi summer heat, her first term was the happiest. She wrote, “For the first time in many years what creative energy I have is being directed toward other things than my professional and emotional self.” She spoke of “wooing the students” to make herself acceptable, and her non-credit courses were popular. She talked of her time with Dr. Jones, who was away from campus most of the time on fund-raising junkets. During his absence, the dean of the school Dr. Chandler was in charge, and Fisher described her as a “somewhat ridiculous little figure”. Fisher was soon to tangle with the steely Chandler and became outraged at a librarian who would not check out books “to NEGRO students!”

During the October break between the summer and fall semesters, things began to go awry. Even as she boarded the plane in Jackson, “I was surrounded by men and women and their frightened children speaking Mississippi dialects, several civil rights workers were flying out, the plane was stiff with heavily armed police, and I became more convinced that I could never come back.” Though she spent her break at a beach house in Bridgehampton, N.Y., attending Broadway musicals and dining with Truman Capote, her mentally unstable daughter Anna lost her job and became pregnant, her friend and editor Pat Convici became gravely ill, and her sister Anne was also in poor health.

When she returned to Piney Woods, she threw herself back into teaching, but the daily grind soon began to wear on her. After a difficult Thanksgiving with her family in California, when she returned to Piney Woods in December she asked to be relieved of her teaching duties for the remainder of the fall semester. Her plans were to return to California to her daughters Norah and Anna, but, incensed that she seemed to have abandoned them in their time of need (Norah was by now caring for the pregnant and unstable Anna) for a group of Negro students in the middle of nowhere, they both insisted that she shouldn’t come.

Fisher left Piney Woods for Chicago in January 1965 and never returned. She had lost 20 pounds and was absorbed in self-reflection. Looking back on that time she wrote, “I began to come to life again.” She later described her time in Mississippi as “a pit of non-existence” she subjected herself to. In Chicago, she began writing again and sold some articles she had written long ago. “I thought a great deal about Piney Woods – the iron hand of Dr. Chandler, the librarian who didn’t want books taken out of the library, the conformity. People want me to write controversial stuff about it, but I am still too close, and I do not want to hurt the old man who founded the school. He is a rascal, but he is also something of a real saint, in my eyes. I am making many notes, of course, and may some day be able to tell what I think is the truth about the basically noble but infamous place.”

These notes were never assembled, much less expounded upon. In Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher, edited by David Lazar (University Press of Mississippi: 1992), Ruth Riechl in 1990 describes this exchange:

“Mississippi?” I ask. Fisher sighs. “In 1964 the kids were all gone and I thought I’d find out if the South was as bad as I thought. So I went to teach at the Piney Woods School.” Piney Woods was a school for black students; the faculty, says Fisher, was half black and half white. She taught English. “The South was worse than I expected. I didn’t go to town at all while I was there.” But why did she go in the first place? Did she plan to write a book, to fight a fight? She looks slightly horrified. “God, no, I wasn’t planning on writing anything about it. And I didn’t go there to fight anything. I just went.” Fisher smiles a little, remembering. “I found it took six months before the kids would eyeball me. But after six months I was without color, and so were they.”

She smiles. “I was not invited back,” she adds with a certain amount of pride, “because I was a trouble maker.” She seems pleased by this, and then abruptly stops talking.

Mystic Mayo

It’s difficult for us now to imagine mayonnaise as exotic, but  Welty remembers its advent in Jackson as an event of near-theatrical proportions.

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 she also 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 his 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 1930s.

The introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition, rich with Welty’s seasoned voice. 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. I’m including a part of the introduction here, specifically that section dealing with mayonnaise because it explains to a “t” just how exotic this now-prosaic kitchen item was then.

“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.”

Welty goes on to describe a typical Jackson kitchen in the twenties and thirties, and mentions a great many women who made significant contributions to the local cuisine. If you can find a copy of The Jackson Cookbook, buy it, read about Jackson’s culinary history from a master of her craft and cook the superlative recipes. No wrong could come from it at all.

A Fine Mess

Brits have a quirky genius for naming food—bangers and mash, spotted dick, toad in the hole, faggots and fools—but some names make a smidgen of sense, if in an oblique way. Take the Eton mess, which is not some cadet catastrophe, but instead part of an institutional meal, in this instance of a somewhat famous school in England.

Eton mess is a mixture of meringue chunks, whipped double cream and fruit, most traditionally strawberries, but other summer fruit—blackberries, peaches or plums—are used. As the name implies, it’s said to have originated at Eton College, originally simply ice cream or cream with strawberries, but then the toffs took hold of it and thus the meringue and double cream. A variation of the Eton mess made with bananas and served at Lancing College is of course called a Lancing mess. We should all breathe a sigh of relief.

In our humid Southern summers, a traditional (“French”) meringue isn’t quite practical, so instead make what is called—God only knows why—an “Italian” meringue. Heat a cup of sugar and a half cup of water to the “raging torrent” stage of boiling then cool until steaming. Whip four egg whites at room temperature in a bowl that’s been wiped with half a lemon; once the whites make soft peaks, SLOWLY drizzle in the hot sugar syrup and keep whipping until quite stiff. Spoon this meringue on a lightly oiled sheet pan and bake in the oven until dry through, then break into chunks. As to the double cream, which has at least 10% more milkfat than whipping cream and has not been ultra-high heat processed, you simply can’t find it here, and while some of you will certainly find this reprehensible at the very least, my solution is to substitute whipped melted vanilla Häagen-Dazs. Sue me.

Messes are best assembled as soon before serving as possible, since the meringue will certainly become soggy in a very short time. You can pretty them up with chopped nuts if you like, but don’t.

Breakfast Matters

The decline of breakfast as a substantial meal in American households can be traced back to a town on the Kalamazoo River in Calhoun County, Michigan.

The town’s name is Battle Creek, the hometown of John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg, the tenth son of a broom-maker, grew up in the frontier town, went east to medical school and returned home to take charge of the Western Health Reform Institute. This institution was founded by a Seventh Day Adventist couple, Sister Ellen Gould White and her husband Brother James, to promote the pre-apocalyptic health-giving regimen an angel detailed to Sister White in a vision on June 6, 1863. The angel instructed Sister White to eat two meals a day, to avoid meat, salt, cake, lard, spices, coffee, tea and tobacco, to rely on graham bread, fruits and vegetables, to drink only water, never to pay physicians and to trust in the healing power of God. They were among the country’s first health food nuts.

After Kellogg returned to Battle Creek—his education “back East” had been paid for by the Whites—he renamed the Institute the Medical and Surgical Sanitarium, and soon what had been a modest farmhouse was transformed into a six-story Italian Renaissance structure with a solarium, a gymnasium, half a mile of glassed-in halls containing palm and banana trees and an Acidophilus Milk Bar. Building on the work of Sylvester Graham, father of the graham cracker, and Dr. James Caleb Jackson, who in 1863 came out with a breakfast food made out of broken-up whole wheat bricks called Granula, Kellogg came out with his own cereal. For some unfathomable reason, Kellogg called his concoction Granula as well. Dr. Jackson promptly sued and won judgment against Kellogg. So Kellogg renamed his cereal Granola, which was, admittedly, not much of a stretch.

If nothing else a bold plagiarist, Kellogg did not learn the error of his bravura from this first legal fracas. C.W. Post, a local competitor, and once a patient at the Institute who had taken Kellogg’s cure without success, was eventually healed of his maladies by a Christian Science practitioner who told him to eat what he pleased came. So Post established his own retreat—La Vita Inn—and in 1895 he brought out Postum, a coffee substitute made of wheat, bran and molasses. His first big success was with a product called Grape-Nuts. But when Post came out with Grape-Nuts in 1898, Kellogg promptly came out with Gran-Nuts. Post threatened court action and Gran-Nuts disappeared from the market. By then, though, the ground had been broken, and soon, through their appeal to the health-conscious, their convenience, and their promotion by means of an aggressive, hugely successful marketing, cold cereals came to dominate the American breakfast table.

But before the advent of the cereal kings, America’s Lucullan breakfasts included tea and toast, eggs, fresh fish, ham, sausages, pigeons on toast (probably passenger pigeons, now extinct), and, of course, oysters. Again, here it must be noted that a substantial breakfast was important to a population that largely supported itself by physical labor of some sort. This was especially true in the heavily agricultural South. Even after WWII, when the urbanization of the South really began and more and more white-collar jobs opened up, many if not most Southern households still ate a hot, substantial breakfast. But as more Southern women moved into the workforce, these breakfasts became a thing of the past, and cold cereals or often simply toast and coffee came to dominate the breakfast menu because of their sheer convenience. Breakfast became more of a rural and weekend phenomenon.

The next major blow against breakfast as a prandial mainstay came again under the aegis of healthy eating. The anti-cholesterol craze that started in the 1970’s seems such a heaven-sent blessing for the breakfast cereals industry that a conspiracist might well believe that it’s a plot involving the AMA and Battle Creek. Because of their high saturated fat and cholesterol content, medical science condemned such breakfast staples as eggs, pork and butter as primary villains in the crime of heart disease. Americans were urged to abandon their sinful eating habits and to pursue the righteous path of low-fat cooking. “Low-fat,” “reduced fat,” and “lite” prepared foods proliferated. Cookbooks promoting a low-fat cuisine sold in the millions. Chefs radically altered their recipes to adapt to the changing market. Salt, too, came under attack as a leading factor in the promulgation of hypertension.

Breakfast fared a little better in restaurants. Though outside the metropolitan areas Southerners usually had little opportunity—or inclination, nor means, for that matter—to eat out, every little Southern town supported a diner where you could go to get breakfast and a plate lunch. The breakfasts were of the traditional sort: ham and eggs, sausage, biscuits, red-eye or sawmill gravy and of course grits. These breakfasts were once a meeting-place for people from all walks of life, especially in county seats on court days and in political years, but eventually they came to be largely patronized by blue-collar types: policemen, teamsters, construction and maintenance workers, farmers or cattlemen in town on business and the like. But by the Seventies, breakfasts had largely lost their appeal for diners because they had become more health-conscious and had less and less time for a morning meal.

Soon many if not most Americans came to view a plate of country ham or sausage with fried eggs and buttered grits, lard biscuits and sawmill gravy as something of a cardiac time bomb. A bowl of cold cereal with a piece of whole-wheat toast, a glass of “fresh frozen” orange juice and a cup of decaffeinated coffee seemed an attractive alternative to a population hell-bent toward senility.

How to Spike a Watermelon

Whoever first infused a melon with alcohol deserves the same medal I’d give the first person to eat an oyster. While this summer refreshment is most often now made with vodka, I believe with every ounce of my being that the original recipe involved moonshine of some vintage.

Fastidious types use a funnel, inventive souls insert a bottle, and I know a guy who draws a grid on the melon to determine the proper place to insert a turkey injector. He’s my best friend. Any colorless liquor will do, since bourbon or brandy will discolor the flesh, and while I’ve never tried spiking a melon with gin, it might be wonderful.

The best way to do spike a melon in my less-than-humble opinion is to cut a crater about a quarter way into the flesh, pour the booze in a cup at a time and simply refill it as the liquor is absorbed. A ripe Charleston Gray is going to take all day, a moon-and-stars about four hours, so you can start one in the morning for lunch.

A Cook from the Homeland

Calhoun County provides north Mississippi with a bucolic idyll between the burgeoning metro areas of Tupelo and Grenada. The Skuna and Yalobusha Rivers run east to west through Calhoun at equal distance into the Yazoo via the Tallahatchie, so geographically the county is divided into thirds. The land is typical of north central Mississippi; rolling wooded hills creased by bottomlands. Given the proximity to Oxford, the county provides a model (if not original) of Yoknapatawpha, but the county seat, Pittsboro, arguably the smallest county seat in the state, is sleepy village, contrary to Faulkner’s bustling Jefferson. Pittsboro sits atop a ridge of hills that marks the southern edge of the Skuna River Valley. To the south, the land slopes in a more leisurely manner to the Yalobusha River just south of Vardaman, Derma and Calhoun City.

Jo Brans is a member of the Reid family, which has lived in Pittsboro for time out of mind. Brans’ writings have explored many subjects, most in a much more scholarly vein, but Feast Here Awhile is a thoughtful examination of the changes in American cuisine from the 50s to the 90s. Feast Here Awhile (the title, by the way, is taken from Shakespeare’s Pericles, I,iv,107) is the story of her own culinary coming of age that takes her from the gentle hills of north Mississippi to Belhaven College in Jackson (which was strictly for young ladies until the year after she graduated, in 1955), to various locations in Texas, Minnesota and, finally, New York City as well as through two marriages, one to an American journalist, the other to a Dutch academic. Brans moves from her mother’s kitchen through college cafeterias, Texas eateries and European fare on to DeNiro’s TriBeCa Grill.

She also moves through (predictably, since the book has a pronounced literary bent) Child, Beard and Rosso, managing to mention Proust, Welty and Kerouac on the way. Indeed, Brans is somewhat of a compulsive name-dropper, both of the famous and the near-famous, but I was infinitely proud of her for managing to squeeze in Ernie Mickler and his wonderful White Trash Cooking. In short, Feast Here Awhile is a personal encapsulation of the American culinary experience in the second half of the twentieth century, and a compelling read from any standpoint. It helps, of course, to be up on the literature, culinary and otherwise, but Brans is an excellent writer and rarely boring. I would recommend this book for any Southerner interested in food and cooking, more specifically Mississippians of that bent and particularly the good people of Calhoun County itself.

In preparation for this article on her, I attempted to get in touch with Brans for an interview, but countless attempts to discover her publisher or literary agent failed. Finally my friend Michelle Hudson, who heads up the reference department at the Welty Library asked, “Have you tried the phone book?” Well, no. Sure enough, in minutes Michelle gave me a number to call. When I did, early on a Saturday evening, a polite young man answered the phone and said he’d pass my message on to Jo. Within an hour Ms. Brans called. After making sure I was from Calhoun County (that didn’t take long at all) we chatted. She said she’d think about my request and let me know. Some three days later, I received her reply. I reproduce it here as evidence of her talent and grace.

Dear Jesse,
  After serious reflection, I have decided that the project you propose is not for me.  I enjoyed writing Feast Here Awhile. I am pleased to find that it has found favor with readers, including, especially, you. Many folks, over the years since its publication, have looked me up (“on purpose,” as we Southerners say) to offer thanks and to relate their own pleasures at the table. I would have had material for several sequels.
  But no, I thought, and think, not. Essentially I have said in Feast what I have to say about the changes in American eating over the last five or six decades. It’s all there, from  the joys of good home cooking and the family dinner table to the more complicated pleasures of Julia Child and those whom she terrified, taught, and liberated–usually all three–and beyond.
  Feast Here Awhile is also a personal odyssey, if that’s not too highfaluting a term for just growing up. I ate my way from childhood in a small Southern town through various stops along the road to life in New York City, and recorded the trip, hit or miss, in “The Food Book,” which became Feast. Though food was the focus, I was always aware as I typed away that I was recording the arc of my own life. No news for either of us there: that’s what writers do.
  Jesse, I’m flattered that you want to work with me, but don’t be content to retread. I really like your piece about Sambo Mockbee and I suspect, from our brief communication, that you want to be a writer, not an editor. If I’m right, cut loose. My way in was food. Maybe yours is food, too, but your food, not mine. Find your own way in. Tell your story. And send me a copy when the book comes out.
  Good luck and God bless,
  Jo Brans

Thanks, Jo. I will.

Vicksburg’s Second Surrender

It’s somewhat of an irony that Vicksburg,Mississippi, a city in rebellion against the United States during the Civil War, surrendered on July 4. What insight does this offer into the consequent patriotism of Southern Americans? How long was it after the Civil War and Reconstruction that Southerners came to identify with, support and yes perhaps even love the United States of America?

The fact is that Vicksburg did surrender to Grant on July 4, 1863. The city’s citizens and defenders were simply exhausted to the point of desperation by a siege that had lasted forty-seven days, and Pemberton, commanding general of the Confederate forces—himself a native of Pennsylvania—hoped for sympathetic terms from Grant by surrendering on Independence Day. Grant paroled the captured military not because of the date, but because he never imagined that given their state of dejection any would ever fight again; some, however, did.

Thereafter for eighty-two years, until July 4, 1945, a scarce two months after Allied troops under Eisenhower accepted the surrender of the Axis forces in Europe, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi held no public observance of Independence Day, and even then there were cries of “Sacrilege!” from older residents, and by all accounts the celebration was a muted affair. The following year some attempt was made to make the July 4th celebration more overt, but even then opposition was offered by those who clung to the memory of that summer morning in 1863 when the hungry, weary city garrison of 30,000 laid down its arms and the city silently watched as Grant’s army occupied a city draped not in bunting but in mourning.

Two years later, in 1947, quite a different situation presented when General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and current chief of staff of the U.S. Army, accepted invitations from Senator James Eastland, Representative John Bell Williams and Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi to make the Fourth of July address in Vicksburg. It’s conceivable that Eastland, Fielding and Wright extended the invitation in hopes of luring Eisenhower to run on the Democratic ticket, though it’s more likely that the three simply intended to make political hay out of the general’s visit. Ike, on the other hand, a committed scholar of military history, was eager to see the military park, which for the record had been established in 1899.

To be sure, Ike had likely been apprised of the holiday’s history in the city, but he was also already treading turbid political waters. Later that month, on July 11, President Truman offered to run as Ike’s running mate on the Democratic ticket if Douglas MacArthur won the Republican nomination, but Eisenhower was still struggling to stay above politics, as had William T. Sherman had upon learning that he was being considered as a possible Republican candidate for the presidential election of 1884. (Sherman declined, saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”) Eisenhower had not announced any party affiliation and cited Army regulation 600-10.18.i forbidding partisan political activity by serving officers. Eisenhower eventually defeated Robert Taft for the Republication nomination in 1952 and won in a landslide that excluded the Solid South. His running-mate Richard Nixon was to flip that thirty years later.

It must be said that Southern patriotism was certainly well-established long before Ike came to Vicksburg in 1947. Florence King states that the rest of the nation was surprised at the numbers of Southerners who flocked to recruiting stations during the Spanish-American War (1898), but then Havana is on our doorstep, as was dramatically brought back home in October, 1962. Spanish-American vet Teddy Roosevelt—whose mother was a Georgia belle—built the biggest navy in the world and expanded U.S. influence over the globe, and the South was a strong participant in the various chauvinistic, jingoistic isolationist movements that swept the country in the periods leading up to the two world wars. But it wasn’t until after the Allied victory in World War II, and the return of Southern G.I.s from far-flung corners of the earth, that patriotism became solidly entrenched in the Southern Zeitgeist. Vicksburg’s surrender to Eisenhower stands as a watershed for that mindset, which is evidently solidly entrenched today.

So it was that on July 4, 1947, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, instead of laying down its arms, opened them for another U.S. general. An estimated 50,000 people attended the festivities, which included picnic lunches spread in public parks, plenty of florid speeches, miles of bunting and fireworks over the broad waters of the Mississippi River. The celebration also included a solemn noon-day salute to honor the memory of the Confederate casualties of the siege; the city had forgiven, but not forgotten.

So You’ve Moved to the Rural South

Congratulations! However, depending on where you’re from, there are probably a few things here that will come as a nasty shock to you. Here are a few of those things. Consider this as a guide. It is by no means exhaustive.

1. When you’re driving past your neighbors, you wave at them. This sends a signal that says “I am one of you, I belong here, I see you”. It also sends another, arguably more important signal that says “I promise not to scrape the left side of your F150 with the left side of my F150”.

2. Yes, everybody here drives an F150. Yes, every single one of those F150s is absolutely necessary (according to the owner).

3. The sweet tea is going to be sweeter than you expect. No matter how sweet you expect it to be, it’s going to be sweeter.

4. “Corn from a jar” means moonshine.

5. “Y’all” is a contraction of “You all” that means “You guys” or “all of you”. “Ya’ll” doesn’t mean anything, as far as I’m aware.

6. Mississippians WILL fight you if you say anything bad about Elvis.

7. Please stop making Deliverance jokes. We’ve heard them all. They’re not funny anymore.

8. It’s hot. It’s so, so hot. If you’re from a dry place, you don’t even understand what I mean when I say it’s hot. Every part of you will sweat and you won’t feel any cooler because the air is so full of water that no sweat will evaporate. You’ll just be hot AND sweaty. It’s basically a jungle. The windows fog up from the outside.

9. If you have a house with a screened-in porch, that screen is a blessing from God. Do not remove the screen to “let the air circulate through”. There is no air to circulate. There are a lot of mosquitoes, however, who are more than happy to check out your circulation. Which brings me to my next point…

10. How fast does the air move around in the summer? It doesn’t; that’s why it’s 92 degrees and 80% humidity at midnight…

11. … and it’s also 92 degrees and 100% humidity in the middle of the day! So if you’re from a place that maybe is a little less humid and you’re thinking of going for a jog outside, don’t bother. All the sweat-wicking microfiber in the world won’t save you when there is nowhere to wick the sweat to. Just go to Planet Fitness.

12. You can’t defeat the kudzu. It’ll come back next year. Save yourself the trouble and the Roundup exposure.

13. You also can’t defeat the insect life. A wasp or a beetle will get into your house eventually. Your best bet is peaceful coexistence, because paper wasps (the type you’re most likely to see) are not aggressive and keep other, nastier insects at bay.

14. There will probably be a pack of free-range dogs in your neighborhood, probably without collars. They’re friendly. Give ‘em a pat.

15. Seriously, wave at your neighbors. It’s rude not to.

16. A firework echoes, a gunshot doesn’t. This comes up more than you’d think. Except on the 4th of July, when you’ll hear both.

17. Opossums eat ticks and are nearly immune to rabies, so if you see one making its dumb little way across the road, please do your best not to hit it.

18. Deer hunting is actually vitally important to maintain the ecosystem. We killed off all the whitetail deer’s natural predators, and now there’s just too god damn many of them. Hunting permits are strictly controlled by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department, and they give out enough necessary to maintain the deer population. If the deer population isn’t maintained, they outgrow their food supply and begin to starve. You may find it distasteful but trust me, it is way better than watching deer slowly starve to death.

19. The cooler you just bought has a ruler on top for measuring fish. See #18.

20. Sometimes our local politicians say terrible things. If this bothers you, you are welcome to:
a. Vote for a candidate that opposes the terrible politician
b. Volunteer for a candidate that opposes the terrible politician
c. Write letters to the terrible politician telling him he’s terrible and should stop that
d. Run for office yourself

You are not welcome to:
e. Talk about how everybody who lives here is an inbred racist hick

21. Most importantly, please do not come here and think you’re going to magically change everything that’s wrong. Give the people here some credit. If there were easy solutions to the problems they face, they would have solved their problems themselves already. Life has its own pace here, and the problems in Appalachia and the South generally are deep-seated and far-reaching. You don’t have the magic solution to the opioid crisis, racism, wage stagnation, brain drain, economic inequality, generational poverty, chronic disease, environmental contamination, resource exploitation, or any other of the issues that are endemic to this area. It is at best insulting and at worst actively harmful to have a person who has zero understanding of this region and the people who live in it come in and insist that big changes need to happen and by golly gosh, he’s the one to make them. If you want to help, listen to the people here. Support them in their fight for justice.

22. WAVE AT YOUR FUCKING NEIGHBORS.