My family’s New Year’s celebration always included fireworks and black-eyed peas. Many of the fireworks were left over from my father’s superb Christmas collection, which contained the usual array of bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers, but he always had a few fire fountains and a loud sparkling rocket or four put away for the last night in December. The peas, which we had on the table pretty much year-round, assumed an incandescence all their own that night as signatures of memory and rapport.
Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country. Among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endures as evidence of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage.
This is another recipe I made at the Harvest Cafe in Oxford, a vegetarian restaurant on the corner of Jackson and South 10th. On the brunch shift, I’d make soup specials, which was always a challenge, because the black bean chili was outstanding and one of the most popular dishes. Under duress, I rose to the occasion and in a memorable effort made a gumbo using black-eyed peas. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes seemed a good combination for our clientele; most people who ordered soup wanted something warm and filling around Sunday lunch time, and this recipe seemed a good alternative to the chili.
My idea received a guarded reservations; when my boss, John Anderson, asked me what he needed to put on the blackboard as the soup of the day, I said “black-eyed pea gumbo.” He blinked his eyes behind those big glasses he wears, slowly nodded his head and said, “Okay”, which in my experience with this gentle man I recognized skepticism of a profound and imponderable nature. Jennie Lee, my co-worker, asked me if I’d lost my mind, but she’s from Charleston, knows perloo better than gumbo, and she knew I was crazier than an outhouse rat anyway. She also didn’t sign my paychecks.
Besides, the dish was well underway. I’d made a good brown roux with vegetable oil and our lightest flour, added minced garlic, chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. This primordial goo I combined with a good base made with vegetable stock, basil, thyme, oregano and bay. Not only that, but I’d been soaking the peas since happy hour the day before, and they were simmering on a back eye. I also had two packages of organic okra stashed in a refrigerator in the back; these were expensive contraband (imagine the price of a frozen package of organic okra in 1995 Mississippi), but essential to my enterprise. The okra I rinsed under warm water before adding it to the pot to relieve it of ropy-ness. The peas I drained but kept the liquid. After adding the peas and okra to the pot, I started adding the liquid to achieve a good consistency (I like it thickish, but with a good juice) then added two small drained cans of diced tomatoes that I’d smuggled in from James’ Food Store. Once that was done, I began adjusting the seasonings, and finally put the gumbo in a serving pan on the line.
Of course, John ordered the first bowl. His comment was just as laconic as his first, but delivered with a smile, which I took as a positive sign. This interpretation was confirmed when the orders started coming in, many for the gumbo. This earned me a grateful nod from my co-workers, since pouring something in a bowl and sending it out the window is one of the less stressful acts you can perform in a busy kitchen. Before the end of the shift, John was gracious enough to come into the kitchen and say, “They loved your gumbo. How did you make it?”
Jackson, Mississippi stands at a crossroads in the Deep South, so it was a shock to discover people here who do not serve greens and peas on New Year’s Eve or Day to ensure good fortune in the coming year. Of course, like any Southern metropolitan area, Jackson has people living here from across the nation and the world who have good reason not to know they should have a pot of peas on the stove on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, but you also have people here living in detached, pretentious affluence who consider peas, collards, mustard and turnip greens, with their ethnic and rural connotations, coarse and common.
Fortunately, such people are by far the exception rather than the rule, and most people in Mississippi’s capitol city cook leafy greens and field peas at the turn of the year in observance of a regional tradition. Black-eyed peas are a type of cowpea, as are crowder peas, and serving them instead of any other variety of beans (for they are beans) is mandatory. This culinary tradition entered the Southern repertoire by way of Sephardic Jews who settled in South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. Stewed greens are almost always served as well, but the type of greens is a matter for the most part a matter of preference, to a lesser extent that of geography, but almost invariably turnips or mustards, collards and cabbages. In the broadest sense, cabbage seems to be most often served in urban households, greens in rural households, and collards most often in the lower South and along the east coast, but this statement is based on the least systematic and most cursory research.
The tradition that associates these foods with financial prosperity is clouded in folklore, but then luck has always been associated with riches, though there are those among us who would say such a relationship is unworthy of the morally evolved. In the past, people were known to have cooked peas with coins in them to ensure wealth (a risky practice), yet peas, largely because of their shape, are symbolic of coins, as leaf greens are of paper money, an obvious analogy in this country where the currency is green on the “back” side. In other parts of the country, New Year’s foods usually typify family holiday traditions. We should find comfort in knowing that our traditional New Year’s table bears hope for the coming year.
Trim one pound gizzards and parboil in lightly salted water until very tender. Drain well. Heat sesame oil in a wok or large sauté pan until very hot, add sliced garlic, sliced peppers (your call; I use poblanos and sweet banana peppers) and gizzards with a little water and gochujang to taste.
Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral) Leonard H. McCoy, M.D, chief medical officer aboard the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701), was born in Atlanta, Georgia, Earth, in 2227 to Mr. and Mrs. David McCoy. He enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 2245, and the University of Mississippi Medical School in 2249, graduating in 2253. McCoy’s graduation date from Ole Miss med school at Ole Miss was never confirmed in a Star Trek production, but Kirk’s statement in 2270 that McCoy had been a doctor for twenty-five years supports it.
In 2245, an interplanetary gymnastics competition was hosted by the University of Mississippi and held at the Menlo T. Hodgkiss Memorial Gymnasium on the Oxford campus, where he met the Tr’i’ll Emony Dax, who was visiting Earth to judge the competition. According to Dax, McCoy “had the hands of a surgeon”. While there isn’t a Hodgkiss Gym located at the present-day University of Mississippi campus, it is described in the series as “a relatively new” building. The University of Mississippi’s School of Medicine is currently located at the University Medical Center in Jackson. While in medical school, McCoy and his friends often substituted real drinking glasses with tricklers at parties. What fun.
McCoy met his future wife Pamela Branch at Ole Miss when she suffered brain-freeze from an ice cream cone. Branch wore white at the wedding ceremony and adopted the last name McCoy. She divorced him in 2255 because their professions kept them apart too often. In the divorce, she acquired their house on Mars, six cars and a valuable Vulcan painting.She also received custody of their daughter, Joanna. McCoy told Kirk that the divorce left him nothing but bones (thus his nickname). Shortly afterwards, McCoy enrolled in Starfleet Academy. The rest, as they say, is history.
When William Styron was a low-level, poorly-paid reader at McGraw-Hill in 1950, he rejected a book written by a Norwegian explorer who in 1947 set out in a hand-built raft on an 8000 mile voyage from Peru to French Polynesia to prove that primitive peoples could navigate great distances. The book, Kon Tiki, later became an international best-seller and made Thor Heyerdahl a legend.
Had Styron not been such a scribbler he might have realized that Heyerdahl’s book would catch the tiki wave that had been cresting in popular culture since U.S. troops came home from the Pacific after World War II. In 1947, James Michener won a Pulitzer for his Tales of the South Pacific, which were based on his service as a lieutenant commander in the New Hebrides Islands. The book was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into the musical South Pacific that premiered in 1949 on Broadway and ran for 1,925 performances.
It was a Cajun, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who kicked off the mid-century tiki culinary craze. Raymond sailed the South Pacific, changed his name to Don Beach, and in 1934 opened a Polynesian-themed bar, ‘Don the Beachcomber,’ in Palm Springs. Three years later, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, adopted a tiki theme for his restaurant in Oakland, and tiki got surf. During the 50s and well into the 60s tiki parties were a popular spin on patio barbecues. These events usually included tiki torches, flimsy furniture, neon paper leis and loathsome drinks with teeny-tiny umbrellas. The mai tai is the quintessential tiki cocktail, and the quintessential tiki appetizer is rumaki. Raymond is credited with its invention since it first appeared on the menu at Don’s, as “mock Polynesian”, chicken livers and water chestnuts marinated in soy sauce with ginger and brown sugar skewered in bacon and broiled. Rumaki are a cliché cocktail appetizer, inspiring parodist references in dozens of television serials and films.
Rumaki are easy to make, but instead of using raw ginger root or (worse) ginger powder, I urge you to use ginger oil for a marinade with the soy, which should be lite soy. To make ginger oil, grate about a half cup of raw ginger, place in a cup of vegetable oil, and heat until the ginger just begins to bubble. Heat for about five minutes, cool thoroughly, drain and save the oil and discard the ginger. Use the oil, mixed with soy 1:2 and brown sugar to taste for the marinade. Slice the livers, depending on size, into thirds; remember that the livers will have a tough connective membrane that must be removed. Slice small whole water chestnuts into halves add them to the marinade. Marinate both for at least an hour. Skewer livers and chestnuts in bacon sliced to size and place in a hot oven (425) until bacon has crisped.
In March, 2017, Joan Didion published the notes of her jaunt forty-eight years ago through Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in a slender book, South and West (Knopf). We’ll take a much more in-depth look at the book in a later entry, but first let’s focus on the passage in which Didion meets with the legendary “Voice of the Rebels” Stan Torgerson, in Torgerson’s home town of Meridian, Mississippi.
Bear in mind as you read that the month is June, the year is 1970. Nixon is in the White House for his first term. The nation as a whole is in a somewhat less turbulent mode after the riotous Sixties, but no section is more complacent than the South, where the key word had become progress. This passage is in essence an examination of the ongoing homogenization of the South as seem through the eyes of a transplant from the upper Midwest (Torgerson) and told to a visitor from California. At times Torgerson sounds like a one-man chamber of commerce espousing racial harmony, social equality and industrialization. When Stan says, “We’re not as inbred as we used to be” he’s referring not (necessarily) to genetics but instead to the influx of people and ideas from outside the South; when he says “we don’t wear crinolines any more” he’s telling Didion that Old South is gone. But though he says, “If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” as they drive through residential Meridian, the issues of race and poverty he discusses are those of the South.
This section from Didion’s work appears here in its entirety not only for the more compelling reason that it needs to be read in toto to grasp its exhaustive effect on Didion and to understand more fully Didion’s comments in context—particularly the last line—but also on a somewhat sentimental level because those many of you–as I do–remain familiar with Torgerson’s voice from his 17 years on air with Ole Miss sports might recollect his voice in the cadences of the quoted passages.
When I called Stan Torgerson for lunch at his radio station, WQIC, and asked him the best place to lunch, he said Weidmann’s, “but it wouldn’t win any Holiday Magazine awards.” In fact it had, and was not a bad restaurant, but everyone in Mississippi begins on the defensive. “I’ll be the biggest man in a green shirt to come through the door,” he advised me. He was, at lunch, wary at first. He said he didn’t think I knew what I was doing. I agreed. He refused drink, saying he wasn’t in New York City. Stan Torgerson came out of the cold North (Minnesota, I think) and headed to Memphis, where he went into broadcasting. He worked in Miami, and then, for a year, in San Diego, living in La Jolla. He felt ill at ease in La Jolla—his neighbors kept to themselves, had their own interests—and he wanted to get back south. His son had won a football scholarship to Ole Miss. He was worried about his children and drugs in California. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I just haven’t reached the point where I think pot is a way of life.”
When the black radio station in Meridian came up for sale he bought it. He also broadcasts the Ole Miss games, something he began doing when he was in Memphis. “That’s right,” he said, “I own the ethnic station, WQIC. In its thirteenth year of serving the black community here.” He programs gospel and soul, and reaches 180,000 in several Mississippi and Alabama counties, the thirty-second largest black market in the country, sixty miles in all directions and forty-three percent of that area is black. We serve a major black market, program soul music and gospel music, but what does that mean? A month ago in Billboard there was a survey pointing out that the Top 40-format stations are playing basically soul. Jackson 5 with ‘ABC.’ ‘Turn Back the Hands of Time,’ that’s Top 40 but it’s soul. Once in a while we throw in some blue-eyed soul, like Dusty Springfield with ’Son of a Preacher Man.’ We don’t play rock because our people don’t dig it. We don’t play your underground groups like the Jefferson Airplane . .. We have goodly reason to believe that ten to fifteen percent of our audience is white; some of the phone calls we get in the afternoon for dedications, they’re definitely white voices. We get thirty-six percent of the audience.”
He said I was probably wondering why he came back to Mississippi. “I came because I dearly love this state. I have a son—he’ll be a senior this fall—playing football at the University of Mississippi.”
He pointed out that Meridian was timber country, hill country. Pulpwood is the backbone of the agricultural product. He pointed out how progressive Meridian was: its three new hospitals. “In most southern cities there is a much stronger tendency to old-line money . . . Southern retailers stayed in business privately, home-owned, until very recently. In most cases the retailer has just begun to feel the competition from the chains. There’s the greatest business opportunity in the country right here in the South . . . We don’t have a McDonald’s in a city of almost fifty thousand people, don’t have any of these franchises here yet. You give one corner of one intersection in Jackson, Mississippi, or you give me the whole ball of wax right here in Meridian, I’d take the whole ball of wax and I’d put a McDonald’s on one corner, a Burger Chef on the other, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (sic! jly) ‘cross the street . . . “
His voice kept on, weaving ever higher flights of economic possibility. “There is and must be,” he said, a “continued turning to the South by industry. The climate is certainly one reason. Another is that the South wants industry and is willing to give a tax advantage to get it. Another, of course, is that there is a relatively low level of unionism in the South. Lockheed assembles tail sections here and ships them to California for assembly . . .
“Atlanta is the magic city for the young around here, across the whole social spectrum . . . The great migration out in the past ten years has been black, they get these glowing letters, and of course they’ve got relatively liberal welfare programs in some of the northern states . . . No doubt, too, there appears to be greater opportunity in the North.”
More on the progressive nature of Meridian: “Our radio station has probably got as fine a list of blue-chip clients as any in town, black or not. We’ve got all four banks, and anyone in retailing who’s interested in doing business with the black—the black’s dollar is very important. The minimum wage was probably the most important thing to happen along these lines, and then food stamps were a good dead, I would say they added millions of dollars to the economy.”
“We are in a transitional phase. There’s a tremendous push to education on the part of young blacks. The schools here are completely integrated. Of course, neither you not I can change the older black, the forty-year old, his life patterns are settled.”
“Ole Miss has its standards to keep up. As more and more blacks get an educational advantage, you’ll see blacks at Ole Miss. There’s a feeling among some black leaders that because these kids have not had advantages they should get some kind of educational break, but basically what has to happen is the standards have to stay up and the people come up to meet them.”
We were driving through town at night, and Stan Torgerson interrupted himself to point out the post office. “There’s the post office, the courthouse where the famous Philadelphia trials were held, the trials for the so-called Philadelphia deaths.”
“If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” Stan observed as we drove through the residential district. He pointed out his $29,500 house, a two-story frame, “twenty-eight hundred square feet, with magnolia, dogwood and pecan trees.” He pointed out Poplar Drive the “Park Avenue of Meridian, Mississippi, all the houses built by the old-line families.”
Fervently, he kept reverting to the wholesomeness of life in Meridian. His daughter, who would be a high school senior in the fall, had “her sports, her outdoor activities, her swimming. It’s a quiet, pacific type of living, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come back down here. The kids are taught to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ I know it’s very fashionable to poke fun at the South, but I’ll pit our slum area any day against the slum areas where the Cubans and Puerto Ricans live in Miami, Florida, and Miami’ll lose.”
Meridian is the largest city between Jackson and Birmingham, and there is a naval base there which means a great deal to the community. At apartment buildings largely inhabited by the navy there are cars with plates from all over the country.
Some random social observations from Stan Torgerson included: most of the local children go to college within the state, at Ole Miss or Mississippi (sic jly): the other country club, built with federal money, has a membership which includes “assistant managers of stores and some navy people’: most of the subdivisions in Meridian feature “custom houses.” Torgerson paused dramatically, to emphasize the versatility of the new blood in town: “A fabric store.”
I asked if some of the children did not leave, and he allowed that some did. “Nothing here for the kid with an engineering degree. And of course the girls go where they marry. Southern girls are notoriously husband hunting, but I guess that’s the same anywhere.” It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
Torgerson was would up now, and I could not stop his peroration. “There’s been a great metamorphosis in recent years in the South, the Volkswagen dealership for example comparable in size to anything you’ll find anywhere.”
“The KKK which used to be a major factor in this community isn’t a factor anymore, both the membership and the influence have diminished, and I cannot think of any place where the black is denied entrance, with the possible exception of private clubs. We don’t have any antagonistic-type black leaders working against racial harmony. Since the advent of black pride, black power, there is a little tendency to be self-segregating. On our station, we have a program we call Adventures in Black History to point out the contributions black people have made—a black minister does it. I have blacks working in the WAIC Soul Shop, and there’s a black druggist here, a man eminently qualified, who is a local boy who went north and came back, received his training at the University of Illinois. We have a certain degree of black business, including this gas station here, which is owned by a black. The key is racial harmony, and education, and we’ll try to provide our people with both, ‘cause we’re gonna live together a long time. Every major retailer hires black clerks, Sears has a couple of black department heads, there’s a black business college here, and a black and white Careen Training Institute.
“Of course we have transplants, too, new ideas, like any other hybrid we’re generally stronger. We’re not nearly as inbred as we used to be. We’ve been withdrawn in this part of the South for many, many years, but we’ve become more aggressive, and as people come in they’ve helped us become more aggressive—we don’t wear crinolines anymore, no we don’t.”
“And about our politics, well, George Wallace got a lot of votes in Indiana, let’s face it. I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ‘cause I’m not. But things are changing. I had a man the other day, owns an appliance store, he never believed you could send a black repairman into somebody’s house. Now he can’t find a white … He asks me if I know a black man who makes a good appearance. That’s progress . . .”
Of course, there’s a tremendous lack of skilled blacks, and the problem is training and education. It’s no longer a matter of lack of opportunity, it’s a matter of lack of skills. We’re still two generations from full equality, but so are they in Chicago, in Detroit, and have you ever been in Harlem?”
Glazed by the two hours in which this man in the green shirt had laid Meridian out before us as an entrepreneur’s dream, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (!) on every corner and progress everywhere, even at the country club, I dropped him off and drove through the still-deserted streets of the downtown. A few black women were on the streets and they carried umbrellas against the sun. It was almost five o’clock. In the middle of 22nd Avenue, the main street of Meridian, there was a man holding a shotgun. He had on a pink shirt and a golfing cap, and in one ear there was a hearing aid. He raised the shotgun and shot toward the roof of a building several times.
I stopped the car and watched him a while, then approached him. “What are you shooting at?” I asked.
“Pi-eagins,” he said cheerfully.
In this one demented afternoon Mississippi lost much of its power to astonish me.
People just don’t make ham salad like they used to.
At one time, you’d see it on just about any occasional buffet table, be it wedding, anniversary or funeral, but nowadays it’s all pimento cheese and hummus. Maybe it’s that same room-temperature mayonnaise consideration that keep tuna or chicken salad at bay, or simply a drift away from meat.
Still and all, ham salad is a beautiful option for holiday left-overs, and it’s a good nosh whenever. Three ingredients are essential: a binding agent—it doesn’t have to be mayo; cream cheese will do, too—finely diced or pureed lean ham—and pickle relish. I like a fine consistency with horseradish, mustard and a little grated onion, but, as Rombauer and Co. say, ham salad, “should be a matter of inspiration”.
Here’s an easy one. For a pound of finely-chopped ham, add about a half cup mayo, two tablespoons each of sweet relish and minced onions. Mix well with a teaspoon each of black pepper and dry mustard. It’s better cooled for an hour or so before use.
For six servings, cook one cup grits in one and a half cups water and one cup whole milk with a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of butter. Once done, add a half cup of shredded cheese (I like Edam or Gouda). Pour into an oiled casserole or skillet to cool until just warm. Make six depressions in grits about two inches apart with the back of an oiled spoon and break an egg into each hole. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and bake at 350 uncovered until eggs are how you like them (about ten minutes for hard-cooked).
Southern dressings tend to have more wheat bread the closer you get to the Gulf Coast, and oyster dressing is no exception; most Louisiana recipes call for a stale French loaf of some kind. However, inland recipes as well as older recipes most often call for cornbread. My recipe is typical of the Middle South, involving both. I implore you not to use green pepper in this recipe. I belong to a school of Southern cooking that subscribes to the gentle bonhomie of Justin Wilson, who maintained that bell peppers are “taste-killers.”
Sauté two cups diced white onion and two cups diced celery in a stick butter on low heat until tender. Cook a pint of oysters with liquid in a half stick butter until oysters are just done, the edges beginning to curl. Remove from heat, add a tablespoon dried thyme, a tablespoon dried basil, a tablespoon ground sage. Combine three cups crumbled dry cornbread and three cups crumbled dry bread crumbs in a large bowl. Add vegetables and butter along with three eggs well-beaten. Mix well, adding enough congealed chicken broth (if needed) to make a thick slurry. It should be quite moist. Add oysters, spoon into a large, lightly-buttered baking pan, bake at 350 until center is firm, about forty-five minutes to an hour.
First published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984, this memoir of my father, Jesse L. Yancy, Jr., was written fourteen years after his death by his friend and political partner, Sellers Gale Denley. Jess Jr., as he was called, was a remarkable man, well-loved, and still missed by many, none more so than me, his last surviving child.
If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.
And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.
Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.
The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.
He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.
The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t. It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again. It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.