Aunt Bess was a woman of intrepid notions who did not let the world at large get in her way of doing what she knew was right. She found nothing wrong with locking Uncle Ewell in the corn crib to keep him from drinking and picking up loose woman in his baby-blue 1954 Buick Skylark, and just because her brother-in-law was the sheriff did not stop her from chasing him out of her house with a shotgun when he put ketchup on her fried chicken.
Bess lived in a big, ramshackle house with a wringer-washer on the back porch, and two swings out front. She kept a huge garden, almost an acre of corn and beans, okra and tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, and two long rows of peanuts. Sometime around October or November, when it came time to pull peanuts, her four nephews—niece Cindy was exempt because she was such a pampered little princess—would trudge up there on an afternoon, and after Bess had used a garden fork to loosen them, we’d pull the plants with their dangling nuts out of the ground and lay them on burlap bags to dry. Later Bess would cut away the peanuts and sack them up to hang on the back porch. This is how Bess parched peanuts.
For a pound of very well-washed raw peanuts in the shell, dissolve a cup of salt in two quarts of water, bring to a rolling boil, and remove from heat. Add peanuts. Sink in the brine with a plate of a pie pan. Let them soak for a few hours and spread on a cooling rack placed atop a cookie sheet. Roast at 350, stirring at least once, until that wonderful aroma compels you to eat one.
The Ark of Taste is an online catalogue developed and maintained by the Slow Food Foundation.The Ark is growing day by day, gathering alerts from people who see the flavors of their childhood disappear, taking with them a piece of their culture and history. The Ark collects small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of our world, an extraordinary heritage of fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and cured meats.
The Ark was created to point out the existence of these products, draw attention to the risk of their extinction within a few generations, and invite everyone to take action to help protect them. In some cases this might be by buying and consuming them, in some by telling their story and supporting their producers, and in others, such as the case of endangered wild species, it might mean eating less or none of them in order to preserve them.
Here are a selection of foods listed on the Ark that most Mississippians will find familiar and some surprising; I was particularly intrigued by the Piney Woods Cattle, the Cotton Patch Goose, the White African Sorghum and the White Velvet Okra. As a Calhoun County native, I’m of course including the two heirloom sweet potato varieties listed.
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.
. . . . . . . . . .
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.
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?”
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!”
Sylvia’s annual acquiescence to the local ladies’ committee’s request that she show her historic house during the city’s pilgrimage (actually more of a command, since her house was easily regarded as one of the most iconic examples of the city’s 19th century architecture) was an ordeal for her, but she knew it had to be done, carried off with grace and style.
So every spring she hired a crew to clean the house from top to bottom, another to groom the grounds and provide colorful containers of thriving plants for conspicuous settings, another to fill the home’s pots and vases with fresh flowers and yet another to provide sweets and sandwiches as well as a punch to serve the afternoon her home was on tour. She also attended the beauty parlor that morning, and this year she even bought a new pair of persimmon pants, a matching pastel-patterned top and a silver necklace of pearl and crystal that she’d been admiring at that little boutique near her supermarket, but she wore her best pair of house shoes, since she knew she’d be on her feet for hours.
The tour extended from 2 until 5 on a sunny spring afternoon. The azaleas were in their full glory, blazing in every shade of red punctuated by brilliant whites. Tourists came in three groups of twelve or so, who followed Sylvia through the house while she recited a story (not hers) of the family who built it and lived in it during days when they were one of the wealthiest in the state. The house was of an Italianate design, which was unusual for the decade in this region, and by far its most spectacular features were two towers with abbreviated belvederes and a magnificent set of double stairs that swept upwards from the parquet floor like the wings of an earthbound angel aspiring to heaven.
“Daniel Bauer was a cotton broker,” she’d say. “His family immigrated to Charleston early in the 19th century, and his grandfather owned a grocery on Short Street, just north of Broad. This became the base of the family fortune. Daniel moved here after his marriage to a house on South Street, where their first children were born. He built this house in 1853.” Over time, Sylvia had learned that the question most people asked was why the house wasn’t burned when the federal army took the city. She always hesitated a bit before answering, because she knew the bit of drama would be appreciated.
“Yellow fever,” she said. “When the army came here three members of the family were sick, all but the youngest daughter, Rebecca. The house was quarantined, the family isolated. After her father, mother and older brother died, Rebecca was left alone in the house with the housekeeper Dotty, who was a free woman. The Bauer family never owned slaves. But she stayed with Rebecca, who died the year after the war was over. The house was sold then and turned into a boarding house, where Dotty worked as a cook until she died in 1900.”
The last group included Adelle Smith, the chairman of the pilgrimage committee, as well as her best friend, Mary Beth Langston, who trailed the rest, lingering in the foyer while the other ladies (and one gentleman in a seersucker suit) followed Sylvia into the parlor.
“Every year, she says she won’t do the tour unless she gets to tell what she calls ‘the whole story’ or ‘a better story’,” Adelle said to Mary Beth. “I don’t know how she makes this stuff up. The only documentation we have about the family, besides from the usual public records and old Daniel’s financial ledgers was a diary Rebecca kept starting when she was ten. She died six years later, so it’s mostly just the sorts of things you’d expect a girl her age to write about: birthday parties, visits from family and friends, new clothes, sewing and cooking lessons and schoolgirl crushes. She wrote little during the war years, most of that about everyone leaving and the food running out. She wrote nothing about the sickness and deaths; probably too painful for her, poor thing.”
“And Sylvia claims to know more?”
“Oh, Mary Beth,” Adelle said. “You know as well as I do that Sylvia never leaves this house; well, no more than she has to, anyway. Remember that fire she had three years ago? She burned her hands so badly she was in the hospital for two days. The firemen said it was started by a heater in a little room off the kitchen, and that room was the only room in the house that looked lived-in at all, and the cleaning people she has in before the pilgrimage say it takes them two days to get the dust and spider webs. Then she comes up with these crazy stories.”
“Like what?” Mary Beth asked. Adelle hesitated. “Mary Beth, how long have we known one another?”
“Since your cousin Randy married my sister Ruth,” Mary Beth said. “That was 1977. If you’ll remember, we met at the wedding at St. John’s. You were quite drunk.”
“And you looked like a fire hydrant in that red dress you were wearing,” Adelle replied. “It was also bad form for you to be flirting with the minister.”
“He married me, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Adelle admitted. “The reason was quite obvious at the time. Mary Beth, Sylvia has always been what our grandmother Ross called ‘queer’, though that meant quite a different thing then than it does these days. Ever since she was a little girl, Sylvia’s always heard things and seen things that nobody else did, and she would have these spells, days at a time, when she’d stay in her room and play with her dolls, and barely speak to anyone else. Their maid used to say Sylvia had a hole in her head, but Granny Ross told us that what she meant by that was that Sylvia had an open mind when it came to spiritual things. She was the only one of us who actually liked going to church. She’d even take her Bible to school and read it in study hall.”
“A real little Goody Two-Shoes, huh?” Mary Beth sniffed.
Adelle looked at her sharply. “No,” she said firmly. “It was more than that. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone.”
Then Sylvia led the group back towards the door, said hello to Adelle and Mary Beth, gathered them all before her and thanked them for coming. “We’re all in our city so very proud to still have this beautiful house for you all to visit,” she said, nodding at Adelle, who nodded back. “I want you all to go to the big reception they’re having over at the old Union Street Lyceum. You’re going to meet some wonderful people, and eat the best Southern food you’ve ever had in your life.”
After a scattering of applause, the group filed out the door. Adelle lingered, waving Mary Beth on with the others. “Thank you, Sylvia,” she said. “The house is beautiful, and we so very much appreciate you opening it up for the public.”
“Adelle, you know I’m proud to do it, and I so hope that after I’m gone, you’ll take of it for me.”
“Me? Why Sylvia, I thought you were leaving the property to your nephew.”
“I’ve changed my mind. Adelle,” Sylvia grasped her hand. “Don’t let them tear it down. Don’t.”
Adelle stepped back at the look in her old friend’s eyes. Then she softened. “I won’t, Sylvia.” She hugged her and walked to the car where Mary Beth was waiting.
Once inside and the door closed, Sylvia heard a tiny, shaken voice from the top of the stairs. “Are they gone?”
“Yes, they’re gone, Rebecca,” Sylvia said. “Until next year. We have to do it again next year.”
“Clara has bought another freezer.”
These words passed among the neighbors each time it happened, and they all nodded knowingly, having long ago concluded that Clara Curtis had indeed slipped over the edge into that comfortable sort of crazy that was perfectly harmless and acceptable.
It was simple enough, after all; they had all known people who had grown up in the Depression, when every penny, every scrap of cloth, every button or buckle was precious, and the food, well people would have shelves upon shelves of home-canned vegetables, pickles, even meats, and smokehouses were filled with hams and salted sides of beef. So it was only natural that Clara, who was born in Mississippi the very year Calvin Coolidge was elected president, would harbor the bitter memories of her early years and retain the habits of her childhood for a lifetime. Why, those freezers were just full of frozen food—chops and steaks, bags of blanched limas, green peas and corn, stocks and soups—most of which, they said, were fed to the occasional homeless men who having heard of her soft touch would end up first at her front door, then on her back porch eating a hearty meal, usually with plenty of her homemade yeast refrigerator rolls, which were a highly-regarded addition to the pot luck suppers at St. John’s Methodist Church, where she was a devout attendee and tither. Her neighbors would see them stretched out in a post-prandial snooze on the white wicker settee on her back porch in the warm afternoons, but they were always gone by the morning.
Then there were the dogs. She couldn’t abide cats, Ms. Clara, but she loved dogs, all kinds of dogs, and if she found a stray she would take it home for caring. Those she fed from the heavy sacks of dry dog food she had Kenny the check-out man at the local grocery deliver to her house. Though home deliveries were long a thing of the past for most Clara Curtis, being of such an advanced age and of considerable means was an exception to this rule, and nobody begrudged her the privilege. She was, after all, Mrs. Harvey Curtis, that same Harvey Curtis who was one of the founding fathers of a local oil exploration group that happened upon a rich field in a nearby rural county, resulting in a considerable fortune which the childless Widow Curtis held with formidable tenacity in the palms of her tiny immaculately-groomed hands.
And the flowers, let’s not forget the flowers. Clara’s house, an unpretentious two-storied brick affair with three awkward gables, stood in a space surrounded by a ring of trees that provided shade by degrees according to their nature, but around the building itself circled a ring of light that in the spring brought daffodils of every shape, size and color as well as what one local horticulturalist called “the most magnificent collection of heirloom azaleas in the state”. In the summer her marigolds and zinnias blazed golden and scarlet beneath a sweltering sun and in the fall castor beans towered in burgundy clumps over the thickening, multi-colored cockscomb. The coda of every year was a pirouette of the beautiful old delicate mums that shared her name.
How many freezers did she have? Oh, at least three, some argued four and one or two knowledgeable observers just nodded sagely and whispered “five”. There really was no telling, since the house was old and after all did have a huge basement that was sure to be cluttered with God-knows-what else. But this was bound to be her last one, they nodded. After all, she was what? Eighty? And sure, she got around just fine, called a cab when she needed to go anywhere, and she’d had a string of regular drivers from the company over the years, the current one a wiry, sullen young man with a shaved head and tattoos who watched over her like a hawk and helped her in and out of the cab. “I’m sure she tips him very well”, they’d say with more knowing nods. Her alone in that house without a soul in the world, but all the money! That church itself would have folded a long time ago if it hadn’t been for her. Mr. Curtis had that (much younger) half-brother, of course (a drunk, a wastrel, but handsome as Satan they said) who would probably lay claim to some money, but they knowing Clara and her tight fist knew he wouldn’t get a penny.
Still she was getting on, and in the lingering heat of a long summer she died. Her driver was the one who alerted the authorities, who had to break through a window to enter the house. They found Clara downstairs in the basement with a dead puppy in her lap surrounded by not three, but five freezers.; written on the first were Cleatra, Rose, Milo and a dozen others; on the second Ophelia, Casper and Rue in the same number; on the third was Mr. Callahan, the fourth Mr. Jones, and in a far corner, Mr. Curtis.
One morning Trudy Morgan found her bird feeder on the ground surrounded by the mutilated remains of two cardinals, three starlings and a squirrel. She was prepared to blame her elderly tomcat Horace for this slaughter until she found his eviscerated body under her gardenia.
“Dogs,” she thought, saying it aloud. It must be stray dogs. She had seen them wandering the streets in packs, scavenging in the alleys. How they got into her fenced back yard was a puzzle, but they must have gotten in, somehow.
Trudy lived in an old neighborhood of the city, in the house her husband George had built after he returned from Vietnam. They’d spent many happy years together there, had watched the neighbors’ children grow up and move away. They had none of their own. Now George was gone and most of the neighbors they knew had moved away, leaving Trudy among strangers. She didn’t mind; she had her garden, her job at the library, her parakeets Bess and Harry, and poor Horace.
She heard the doorbell ring, a sound she’d not heard in many years. When she opened the door she saw nothing other than a shivering ripple beneath the shrubs. Trudy closed and locked the door quickly, thinking somehow a dog had thrown itself against the ringer. She buried the birds, the squirrel and poor Horace against the back fence and went to the library. When she returned, the front door was open. She found the bird cage in a corner, and the only trace of Bess or Harry was a single speckled green feather on the sofa. Nothing else seemed disturbed, even the gold coins she’d had framed and foolishly kept on the wall in the hall. Trudy called the police. “It’s probably a raccoon,” they said, and gave her the number of an animal remover.
Before dawn, Trudy awakened and felt a weight upon her. She tried to shove it off and roll over on her side, but it was heavy. She opened her eyes and saw a bearded face with amber eyes looking back at her. Trudy was too scared to breathe, much less scream. She could feel his hardness against her gown. It licked its lips and began rubbing against her, kneading her breasts and twisting her nipples. Its movements and breath quickened; it grunted, and she felt wetness. It jumped off the bed and ran out into the hall before she could even think. She waited, frozen, until the sun came into the room; once washed and dressed, she ran to her car and drove to the café near the supermarket. She ordered coffee. The waitress, a plump young blonde named Sylvia, said, “Miz Morgan, you look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
“I don’t know what it was,” Trudy whispered, still dazed. Sylvia had ornate knotted tattoos on her arms and many rings in her ears. She looked at Trudy with lowered brows. “What do you mean?” Trudy told her about everything; the birds, poor Horace, Bess and Harry, the ripple in the hedges and, in a whispered rush, about the thing on her chest. She was still shaking, and held her coffee with both hands. Sylvia bit her lip. “Miz Morgan, you just sit for a minute. My shift will be over in a little bit. I can help you.”
“How?” Trudy asked.
Sylvia said nothing, but refilled her cup. When she returned, she had changed into a loose green blouse. She put her hand on Trudy’s and said, “You’ve got a yampus. They’re not really evil like a demon, just mean. It won’t hurt you, but it will kill everything you care for, more out of spite than anything. It will keep you and use you. I know these things. My granny was a voodoo lady. I follow a different tradition,” she said, glancing at the worsted tattoos on her arms, ”but a yampus is a yampus no matter how you look at it.”
Trudy just stared at her. She could still feel it kneading her breasts and smell its warm breath on her neck. “I can’t go home,” she said.
“Of course not,” Sylvia said. “You’re coming with me to my house, and we’ll deal with that yampus tonight. Now get your purse and follow me.”
Sylvia lived in a cottage near the divinity college not far from the library where Trudy worked. The house had a stone fireplace, a crowded library and handful of cats that took their time doing anything at all. Trudy bathed and changed into a housecoat while Sylvia made a light lunch and washed her clothes.
“You need to sleep, Miz Morgan,” Sylvia said, “So go to bed and don’t worry about anything while you’re here.” Despite the assurances, Trudy slept uneasily, but she did sleep, awakening when the sun was sinking. “Get dressed and let’s go,” Sylvia said.
Trudy looked at her, wide-eyed and questioning. Sylvia smiled. “I’ve done this before. Don’t worry.”
When they got to Trudy’s house, the door was still locked. Sylvia followed her in, carrying a brown valise. “I don’t have a stake and a hammer in here,” Sylvia said with a short smile. “Now show me to your kitchen, I’m going to make us some tea, and then I want you to get to bed.”
“I can’t!” Trudy said.
Sylvia took her hands. “Yes, you can. Listen to me. I know he scared you, but he won’t hurt you. He just wants to use you, and you know how he wants to use you. A yampus just wants one thing, and as a woman you ought to know what.”
“Oh, yes,” Trudy said, smiling thinly, remembering and growing warm with the memory. Sylvia looked at her, cocking a brow. “Well,” she said. “Let’s get ready. Dress for bed. I’m going to turn out the lights and sit in the spare bedroom. I’ll be able to hear him when he comes into the house. He’ll take no notice of me. I’m not the one he wants.”
Trudy went to her bedroom, undressed and went to her closet where she selected a silk nightgown and a satin negligee. She turned out the overhead light, folded back the bed and turned on the lamp atop her dresser. She sat, applied lipstick and blush, brushed her neck with perfume, and then climbed into bed. He came through the window, and the warm night air followed. She could hear him as he moved to the end of the bed. Suddenly he was upon her, holding her, moving his head against her, his hands on her body, touching and probing. He parted her clothing and she felt his lips upon her nipples and his penis pressing upon her stomach. She caught her breath as he entered her and began to move as he moved, as if she were telling him something. Suddenly he squeezed her with his arms, she gasped, and then she felt him finish and heard him whine as if he wanted more. Then he was gone, as suddenly as he had come, leaving nothing. As she lay there, she heard Sylvia’s voice. “I’ll be going now, Miz Morgan.”
“Yes,” Trudy said. “I’ll be in for coffee in the morning.”
Ruth Parker owned over two dozen dolls, and she knew every one of them by name. “This is Snagglepants,” she’d say, holding up a Raggedy Andy with a torn pocket. She called her big Raggedy Ann doll Phyllis and the little one she took everywhere Roo-roo. Ruth and Roo-roo were best friends. They had three tea sets between them, and if the other dolls were nice, Ruth and Roo-roo would have them for milk and cookies. “But you can’t have any peanuts because Roo’s allergic,” Ruth would remind them. Ruth lived with her parents in a big house on a wooded street. Aside from Roo-roo, her best friend was the housekeeper, Lena. Lena was tall and her cheeks were very full. As she cooked and cleaned, she sang songs and made cookies for Ruth and Roo-roo’s tea parties, but she always told them she wasn’t supposed to. It was Lena who told her about Mr. Lilyfoot.
Mr. Lilyfoot lived under a tree at the end of the path in the garden behind Ruth’s home. He had a green cap, red overalls and a long white beard. He always smiled. On nice spring days, Lena would sit in the swing with something to occupy her hands while she watched Ruth play in the yard. When she had to go inside to answer the phone or change a load of laundry, she’d tell Ruth Mr. Lilyfoot would watch after her. At first Ruth didn’t like Mr. Lilyfoot; he was stiff, not soft like her dolls. She’d hold her little Raggedy Ann up to Mr. Lilyfoot’s smiling face and say, “Roo-roo doesn’t like you!” But Ruth was a sweet child, and when she saw that Mr. Lilyfoot’s face was dirty, she asked Lena for a napkin so she could wipe it off because Mr. Lilyfoot’s arms were always behind him. Lena laughed at her one windy afternoon when Ruth tied one of her father’s socks around Ms. Lilyfoot’s neck and took care to hide the other one.
“Mommie, it’s cold outside. Can Mr. Lilyfoot come sleep in my room?”
Janet Parker brushed her daughter’s dark hair. “Sweetie, who is Mr. Lilyfoot?’
“He’s in the garden,” Ruth said. “He’s wearing a hat, but I know he’s cold”
“Oh, honey, I don’t want that nasty thing in your room,” Janet said.
“He’s not nasty.”
“Ruth, he lives outside. He’s an outdoor doll.”
“He’s not a doll.”
“Well, not like your other dolls, but he’s still a doll.”
“Roo-roo says he isn’t. Roo-roo knows everything.”
Janet cocked an eyebrow at her petulant daughter. “And what does Mommie know?”
“I love you, Mommie!” Ruth launched herself into her mother’s arms and looked into the back yard through the window.
When Ruth awakened that afternoon, Mr. Lilyfoot, scrubbed by the ever-patient Lena and bright as a new penny, was smiling at her from the corner of her room. She and Roo-roo immediately arranged a high tea with hot chocolate and frosted cookies. When Janet looked in on her later she found that Ruth had arranged her favorite dolls around the little table, with Mr. Lilyfoot at its head.
“Mr. Lilyfoot’s warmer now, Mommie. But Roo-roo’s tired,” she said, holding up the little rag doll.
“Well, let’s put her to sleep,” Janet said. She gathered her daughter in her arms, made sure her doll was with her, and put her to bed. She glanced at Mr. Lilyfoot smiling from the corner, lowered the shutters and closed the door.
When Janet brought Ruth’s tray upstairs that night, she heard her daughter laughing from the hallway. She found Ruth sitting up in her bed, clutching Roo-roo, and smiling.
“What’s so funny?” Janet asked.
“Mommie, me and Mr. Lilyfoot took Roo-roo to Magicland, and she had tea with the King!”
Janet tucked a bib under her daughter’s so very thin neck and began feeding her with a spoon. “Did Roo have a good time?”
“She was scared at first because the king was so high up and her legs are really short. But then the king asked her to dance, so she didn’t have to go so far up.”
“Did you dance?” Janet asked.
“No, Mommie,” Ruth said. “I had to help Mr. Lilyfoot make the band play. I’m tired.”
Janet tucked her daughter under the covers, kissed her, climbed onto the sagging cot next to Ruth’s bed and closed her sad eyes.
Ruth and Mr. Lilyfoot, with Roo-roo in tow, went everywhere. The tea parties became a thing of the past. Instead, they took buckets to the beach where they collected shells. Another time they sailed the seas on a boat made of glass and rigged with silver, and once they found a mountain made of chocolate and topped with ice cream. The following morning they went to the moon and found big gold rocks that glittered under the smiling sun. That afternoon Mr. Lilyfoot rearranged the stars, and later they all skated on swirls of light through a sparkling tunnel into a warm, black night. “Don’t be scared, Roo-roo,” Ruth said. “Mr. Lilyfoot will get us home.”
It wasn’t long before Ruth’s dreams ended. Lena boxed up the lonely dolls for other little girls, and she returned Mr. Lilyfoot to the garden under the tree at the end of the path.
Sift 3 cups flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder. Mix in 2 cups light brown sugar (it doesn’t have to be packed, for Pete’s sake). Work in a cup of cold butter, then stir in 2 well-beaten eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1 teaspoon almond extract. Add 2 cups grated coconut, mix well, and drop by spoonfuls onto a lightly oiled sheet pan. Bake at 350 until lightly browned.
Traditionally made on May 4, Wookies are fun to make and delicious any day of the year. Preheat oven to 350, and line a lightly oiled baking sheet with parchment paper. Flip the paper to oil both sides. Cream together 2 sticks softened unsalted butter with 1 cup sugar. Mix in one 1 large egg, beaten, and add a tablespoon vanilla extract. Set aside. Mix 2 ½ cups AP flour with 1/2 c. cocoa and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Slowly add the dry mixture to the wet ingredients until just combined. On a clean floured surface, work the dough until smooth and roll out to about ¼ inch. Cut into “wookies” with a gingerbread man cookie cutter, place onto the parchment baking sheet, and use a fork to make fur. Bake for about 10 minutes, remove from oven and cool thoroughly before decorating with frosting and sprinkles. They’re a little chewy.
Rice Krispies Treats are the American version of marzipan, easily molded into such things as teddy bears, clowns, and boobs. This clever little innovation is fun to make, just cute as can be, and a great Halloween treat.
For the outer yellow ring use 5 cups Rice Krispies, 5 cups miniature marshmallows, and a quarter stick butter with yellow food coloring; for the middle orange ring, 3 cups Rice Krispies, 3 cups miniature marshmallows, and a quarter stick of butter, with orange food coloring; and for the white center, 2 cups Rice Krispies, 2 cups miniature marshmallows, and a quarter stick of butter.
For each ring, combine marshmallows and butter, and microwave for about 3 minutes, stirring after a minute or so, until blended. Stir in food coloring; you don’t need much, only a few drops of yellow and a couple of yellow and red for the orange. Pour over the cereal, coat your hands with butter and mix the marshmallows into the cereal with your fingers until the color is uniform.
Working quickly, divide each color batch in two, then beginning on the outside of greased 8 in. cake tins, make your rings: yellow first, then orange, then the white center. Keep them an even width. Press the cereal/marshmallow mixture into the pan to ensure they stick together and make them a consistent thickness. Let the rings set for thirty minutes, then turn out on a cutting board and slice first in half, then into quarters, then into eight even wedges. Store with waxed paper between layers.
People had been eating mundane mixures of peanuts and popcorn for at least a couple hundred years before the Rueckheim brothers created a magical mix with molasses at the 1863 Chicago World’s Fair. In a few years, they began marketing Cracker Jack nationally, quite unintentionally becoming the fathers of American junk food.
It wasn’t long before America’s premiere snack became synonymous with America’s premiere sport; the sticky, salty snack became regular fare at baseball games (“Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks/I don’t care if I never get back!”), and among the first “prizes” in a box of crackerjacks were baseball cards. Other early toy surprises included plastic figurines, booklets, and rings such as the one George Peppard gave to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a play on the prizes’ pop-culture status as cheap gifts. Jim Steinman’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”—recorded by Meat Loaf on his 1978 album, Bat Out of Hell—includes the lyric “there ain’t no Coupe de Ville/ hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box”.
Junk food it very well is, but crackerjacks are also a great snack, as junk foods tend to be, of course. Buying crackerjack in bulk can be problematic; however, the basic combination of popcorn, peanuts, and molasses is easily made at home quite easily. Mix 10 cups popped corn and 2 cups Spanish peanuts in a roasting pan. Place in oven at 250. Bring a half cup dark corn syrup, a half cup butter, a quarter cup brown sugar, and a teaspoon of salt to a rolling boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in a teaspoon vanilla. Working quickly, pour over warm popcorn while tossing until well coated. Spread on a shallow baking pan and return to oven, stirring with cooking spray occasionally, for 45 minutes. Don’t let it stick. Turn onto foil to cool.
My father was a lawyer during the 50s and 60s in a rural county in north Mississippi. Money was never plentiful, but we had what we needed: we never had to buy firewood, we always had a freezer full of meat wrapped in white butcher paper, and a cupboard stocked with some of the best home-canned foods in the South. Around Christmas Dad would go to the door at night and return with bottles tightly wrapped in paper sacks, holiday happies from secret friends in that dry county.
In Octobers, when it was still hot and dry, Dad would drive my sister, brother and me to the Ellard community where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm. Across the road from their house the slope of a hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d gather all we could carry, which wasn’t much, while Daddy sat on the porch with them with a glass of sweet tea and talked.
Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man. “Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said. “Years back, their boy got into trouble, a lot of trouble. I did everything I could to keep him out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they understood. I never asked them for a penny. I knew they didn’t have it. But he’d feel bad if I didn’t come out and get these squash. It’s his gift, and you don’t turn down gifts from a man who doesn’t have much to give. It means more to me–-and him–-than anything anybody else would give me.”
The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards. Some were peeled, cubed and parboiled for a casserole or pie. Others were split, seeded, usually scored, brushed with melted butter mixed with orange juice, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly browned. Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork. While the more durable sweet potatoes were on our table throughout the year, winter squash are seasonal. When I see them in the store, I know winter is coming, and my mind goes back to a that dry autumn hillside at an old failing farm in north Mississippi.
According to my buddy Ernest from Yazoo City who keeps up with such things, crypto-hominoid sightings are on the rise in Mississippi. Such creatures have been seen as far north as Winona and as far south as Mount Olive, where an adult male was viewed trying to make off with a dish antenna and a tackle box.
Most sightings are very late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, but Ernest claims he has a video of one raiding a Frito-Lay van in Greenwood in broad daylight. I haven’t seen it, but he says it looks like a bald orangutan in a Saints jersey tossing heavy confetti.
These beings deserve our respect and compassion; let’s not endanger them by alerting game wardens or any other law enforcement agents. We should encourage and support their presence in this world we share. I keep a six-pack of Bud Light on the back porch, but I won’t have them in the house.
This is a nice autumn nosh, great for a Halloween party. Soften an 8-oz. block of cream cheese, blend with 1/2 cup packed brown sugar, and a teaspoon vanilla extract. Chill, and top with a cup of toffee bits or a finely-chopped Heath bar. Serve with sliced apples or snicker-doodles.