The Quest for the Red Zeppelin

It was mid-morning, late June, and Harlan’s truck was shaking, rattling, and rolling, kicking up dust on a snake-neck red gravel road two miles northwest of Big Creek, Mississippi, hauling ass over about a hundred square miles of nothing but hills and woods, heartache, hydrocodone, honky-tonks, bait shops and the occasional double-wide Baptist church perched next to a crumbling asphalt parking lot, making our way by fits and starts to the backwaters of Grenada Lake.

I was red-eyed from a blunt, grumpy and road-weary, but Harlan was ebullient behind the wheel, grinning like a Tartar, regaling me with his cynical and irreverent observations on the state of mankind and his critical assessment of my life as a microcosm thereof.

“I told you not to take up with that nigga Ricky, but did you listen? No, hell no, you had to move into that shit-hole duplex he shared with his sister.”

“That was three years ago,” I said. “Besides, I was in love. People do stupid shit when they’re in love. What about that Miss Lauderdale County you took up with who threw that five-carat engagement ring you gave her out the car window while y’all were driving across Lake Pontchartrain?”

He just threw back his head and laughed and said she was worth every damn carat, and if he’d had any sense at all he wouldn’t had fucked her sister. Suddenly it occurred to me how little I knew of Harlan.

*****

Harlan is a tall, solidly-built man with a head full of thick, unruly greying red hair, an bright, lazy smile, and the kind of voice given to people who have little to say. He can talk his way between a tiger’s teeth and gets his way in places most people won’t even go, like this farm in the middle of nowhere that grows the world’s most sought-after watermelon.

Harlan claims to be the world’s leading expert on watermelons. His qualifications include a stint in the Navy, a PhD from Cornell and 32 years in USDA’s harness. Along the way he picked up enough knowledge to make him a recognized authority on not just watermelons, but the melon family of plants. Watermelons, however, are his consuming passion and he has traveled across the globe in search of rare ancestral varieties. On his farm in George County, Mississippi he grows dozens of varieties, his prize crop the white-fleshed tsamma of the Kalahari.

Three weeks earlier, some laid-back ass-lick who makes more money in a day than I see in a month working for a slick new regional called me up out of the blue and said he’d give me a dollar a word for an article about the fabled Red Zeppelin, a pearly green  oblong averaging some twenty-five pounds. It’s most distinctive characteristic are pale, subtly shaded lateral stripes that gave the fruit an illusion of ribbing. The Zeppelin is also distinguished—indeed ennobled—by a dense, velvety flesh of surpassing succulence.

Harlan’s source for these watermelons is on a sloping red sand dune with an ever weeping spring in indenture on the ridge south of the Schoona River in a remote and sparsely-populated county in north central Mississippi.  We’d been on the road a long time, and I was just flat-out tired from the long drive up from Jackson, tired of the road and impatient with Harlan, who seemed alternately fidgety and distant. I just wanted to get there, get the ‘Zepp, and get the hell out.

*****

The sun danced on the rim of the world and shone in random rays over a country sculpted by loggers  and downpours. The road looped over hills, plunged down hollows, and turn-rowed bottom-land crops, following the design of some sweaty, half-drunk supervisor to no rational destination whatsoever. Then suddenly there it was, a gently sloping sandy hill, glowing and imposing, on the red side of gold, a washy bronze in the pale summer sun. as lyrically striated and undulating as a vineyard and punctuated by tiny glowing ovals situated like so many open whole notes up and down a page of symphonic notation,  As we grew closer I made out upon that terraced hillside a lithe figure in loose, faded red overalls with wearing a broad red straw hat with a billowing polka-dot ribbon gently hoeing a row of bouldered vines.

“That’s Royce,” Harlan said. “Let’s go on up to the house.”

The house was a solid dogtrot overlooking the broad Loosa-Schoona bottom  with a wrap-around porch sheltering high windows that framed dangling melded Mardi Gras bead disks, swinging strings, mandalas and figurines of colored glass. Each line, angle and corner of every room of the house, glowed in turn with ruby, topaz, purple, aquamarine, and a hundred dozen colors in between, bending light into blades, spears, and arrows.

As we stood in the foyer, Royce came in. “Hey, daddy,” he said.

“Hey, sugar-booger,” Harlan said, giving him a sloppy kiss and a pat on the fanny. “Where’s Owen?

“He’s on his way back from Grenada. He’ll be here around dark. Y’all come get something from the refrigerator and we’ll sit on the porch.”

The winds were warm and shifty, the gloaming sky a bowl of scattered dirty cotton clouds. Around dusk, a light breeze sprang from the bottom. We could see the cloud pushing it sailing north up the river from the backwaters of the reservoir. and a little slipper of a moon dangled over the fading sun. Soon, we heard a car horn beeping in the distance.

“Here comes Owen,” Royce said, looking in the distance, and turning to Harlan said,“Where is she?”

Harlan exhaled, stretched, stamped his feet and said, “In the back floorboard. I had a nice little box made, put a couple of photos in with her. One of us on our honeymoon in Daytona Beach. We both were wearing cut-offs. We were so happy. I put a picture of you in there, the one at the Sugar Bowl after the touchdown. She did love you, Royce. Don’t rob yourself of that.”

Royce smiled at him, and pointed to a faint star at mid-heaven. “There she is, Daddy. That little dot of light nobody can touch caught in the middle of the sky. Momma was a lightening bug in a beer bottle, caught up in a storm she made herself.”

Royce leaned over and patted Harlan on the knee. “I’m settled with it, daddy. You ought to be, too. She always tried to keep herself pretty for you, even when she saw the end coming. Let’s go get her.”

Owen, dark and quiet, embraced Royce as we walked down the hill, the field around us silvery under the open sky . We came to the east side of the hill, where the crook of Leo embossed the heavens. There in the shadows Harlan placed the glossy black box on a rough, flat red rock beside the weedy rill leading from the untidy spring. The wind rose.

“Bye, Momma,” Royce said. “Go home now. Don’t hurt anymore.”

Harlan began crying and we helped him back up to the house where we sat on the porch and drank and told stories about days we missed and days we didn’t until the noise of the night blanketed us inside and abed. In the morning Harlan and I drove south under a blistering orange-red sun with a clutch of pearly melons nestled in pine straw against in the bed of the truck.

Hangtown Fry

You might find that hangtown fry was invented during the California Gold Rush by a miner who’d just struck it rich and barged into a saloon demanding the most extravagant dish in the house. The truth is, hangtown fry was invented then and there for the same reason by condemned criminals. My version of this dish is unbreaded oysters, onions, and sweet peppers in a frittata. Serve with sourdough toast.

 

Sherried Shrooms

Use button or baby bellas, about 10 oz. per serving. Slice thickly or leave whole, as you like. Heat a sauté skillet, add at least two tablespoons of good sweet butter and a hefty smidgeon of thyme. I don’t recommend garlic, but if you feel so compelled, I urge you not to overdo it. When butter is bubbling, add mushrooms, toss until just cooked through, and pour in a generous slosh of good sherry. It’s fun to use an amontillado and tell your guests. Reduce, salt to taste, and serve. This is a great side for grilled meats.

Tomato Gravy

Fresh home-grown tomatoes, singed and peeled, are best to use, but home-canned tomatoes run a (very) close second. Bacon drippings are the traditional fat, and the liquid can be water, stock or milk, or combinations thereof; Bill Neale uses chicken stock or water, while Robert St. John’s recipe calls for stock and milk. If I’m using home-canned tomatoes–as I usually do, even in the summer–I always add a little juice. Traditionally served over buttermilk biscuits, rice or grits, Neale among others also recommends it for fried chicken. I use it to smother pork chops, too.

2 cups tomatoes chopped, if fresh, singed and peeled
2 tablespoons bacon drippings
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups water or broth with a little milk
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Add salt, pepper and sugar to chopped tomatoes, and mix well. Heat bacon drippings in a skillet, add flour to make a brown roux, pour in tomatoes with water/broth/milk and cook until thickened.

Stuffed Focaccia

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

 

Baked Cookie Dough

Cream 1 cup brown sugar and 1 cup white sugar with 1 cup softened butter. Add two beaten eggs and a teaspoon vanilla extract; mix well. Then work in 3 cups flour that have been sifted with a teaspoon of baking soda. When thoroughly blended, refrigerate for an hour, then roll out on a floured board, cut into rounds, place on a flat, heavy baking sheet, and place in a 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool thoroughly before serving.

Armand Coullet: Mississippi Impresario

On Saturday, March 17, 1951, the stage of Jackson’s Civic Auditorium supported a cast of players the likes of which never had nor never since has tread the boards in the capital city. As the very Devil himself, Charles Laughton led Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer and Sir Cecil Hardwicke in a surprisingly successful enactment of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell”. The review in Sunday’s Clarion-Ledger (“‘Don Juan in Hell’ a Big Hit Here”) states that the Jackson audience was thrilled with “Agnes Moorehead’s amazing transformation from a woman of 77 at death to a lady of 27 in Hell”, adding that “Laughton stated categorically that he is not ‘the beefy bird of comic strip fame.’”  One year later, a Time magazine article stated that the production’s tour had amassed gross profits of over $1M.

The Jackson performance was engaged by a man who recognized not so much a shy hunger in the city as an earnest yearning not only for literature, but for music, for lights, for the engaged delight of people in a body; the laughter, the suspense, the applause: the man, Armand Coullet, provided Mississippi’s capitol with over three decades of dazzling entertainment.

According to Jackson historian Harry Brown, “About a decade after H. L. Mencken declared the South ‘The Sahara of the Bozart’, Armand Coullet arrived on the Jackson scene to do something about it. He quickly established himself as the city’s resident Frenchman, a position he proudly made the most of and which of course carried a certain primacy in cultural affairs. Mr. Coullet was actually from Algiers. but that was certainly close enough to the Riviera for Jackson society of the day. Eventually he became the town’s foremost impresario, bringing notable entertainers and productions not only to Jackson but to other cities in the region. The Coullets—his wife Magnolia was an accomplished vocalist as well as being Chair of Foreign Languages at Millsaps, and his son ‘Tink’ went on to the Broadway stage and beyond—were welcome in the very highest social circles, and Armand was a highly valued addition to any gathering. He naturally had an approving and charming eye for the ladies, but of course all with courtly decorum.”

Camille Saint-Saëns

Armand Coullet was born in 1899 to a well-to-do French family that had relocated to Algeria shortly after France conquered the North African country in the early 19th century. His father was a French civil servant. He attended public schools in Algiers, graduating from the French Government School of Topography. He also graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts with the Premier Prix in violin, conducting and orchestration. Advanced study in conducting and orchestration was completed with composer and conductor Camille Saint-Saëns, and and was later assistant to Saint-Saëns as concert master of the North African Symphony Orchestra.

He continued his violin studies in France at the Conservatoire de Paris; when Armand completed his musical training, his father and mother, Eugene and Marguerite, presented him with a fine violin made in 1667 by Francesco Ruggieri, who served as an apprentice in the workshops of Stradivarius. Coullet played first violin in the Opera House in Algiers for two years and directed his orchestra in the city’s leading hotels. He also served three years in a field artillery unit of the French Army during World War I.

Coullet came to the United States in 1924. In an interview fifty years later, he recalled, “The only thing I had was my violin and $27, but I had the world by the tail. When I got off the boat, there was an agent standing there who sked me in French if I played the violin. He gave me a job right there on the spot with the Boston Little Symphony.”

As concert master of the Boston Little Symphony Orchestra, Coullet traveled with the Chautauqua Tours, and for the next several years, he conducted his own orchestra in various New England resorts and spent a year as first violinist in the Roxy Theatre Orchestra in New York City. He first came south with various road shows and located at Palm, Beach, Florida with his own orchestra. He opened and directed the Academy of Music in West Palm Beach, with a faculty of 12 and an enrollment of 140 students. While in Palm Beach, Coullet regularly heard residents’ complaints about the town’s lack of theatrical offerings. Together with a local theater owner and three partners, Coullet contacted New York producer Lee Shubert and convinced him to send a touring company of “George White’s Scandals” to Palm Beach. The show was a hit and Coullet was bitten by the promoting bug. The itch would last the rest of his life

The devastating 1928 Okeechobee hurricane that practically destroyed West Palm Beach ended Coullet’s career there, and he went back to New York. While there, Hazel Chisholm, who was then working for Jackson radio station WJDX, called him to come to the city. When he arrived in the Jackson, he gave his two weeks’ notice his first day at the station. “I saw the town and thought, ‘Oh, my God,” Coullet recalled fifty years later. “It was so primitive. They had streetcars being pulled down Capitol Street by mules. I knew the town had potential, but potential was for the future. I wanted to leave immediately.”

But he was persuaded to stay, crediting his decision to the kindness of his employers. It was 1928, and in those days radio stations provided their own music. Coullet conducted a 14-piece orchestra for WJDX. He originated special instrumental and vocal programs in classical, semi-classical and popular music. He also met a young lady, Magnolia Simpson, from Madison, Mississippi, who was later to become Mrs. Coullet. Magnolia, Mrs. Sarah. B McLean, and Coullet broadcast every Sunday afternoon from the old Century Theatre the highly successful “Rice Dream House” program, sponsored by Rice Furniture.

Fellow musician and ofttimes traveling companion Muller Adkisson remembers, “During the Depression Armand played violin in the WPA orchestra and he said that’s what kept them going, what put food on their table. He had married Magnolia at some point in there. She taught both voice and Latin at Millsaps College. Later she taught German. WJDX’s original studio was in the Lamar Life building in one of the upper stories under the clock tower. Later when the Heidelberg Hotel added the upper six stories to their 12-story building, they added two stories that weren’t accessible by the elevator. WJDX moved there.”

In 1935, Coullet was instrumental in organizing the Jackson Symphony Orchestra and in 1937 he originated the All-Star Series (now a part of the Jackson Music Association). Coullet also found a theatrical vacuum in Jackson similar to the one in West Palm Beach so he again contacted Schubert, who persuaded New York agencies to place Jackson on their lists; it was a natural stop between Memphis and New Orleans, he reasoned with them.

“Because of union rules traveling shows could only travel so many miles a day,” Adkisson said, “so Armand was often able to bargain them down, get shows here, even though Jackson audiences weren’t that big and couldn’t afford the big shows. But often because of the rules somebody would call him up and say, ‘We have to have a show in Jackson, what can you pay us?’ And he got a lot of good shows here that way.”

His first Broadway production in Jackson was “Blossom Time” in 1935. Coullet later said, “(Being an impresario) might sound romantic and fascinating to some people, but it is hard work and full of worry.” After swinging the deal to bring “Blossom Time” he said he got the stage hand bill and it scared him so much he almost backed out.

Many names headlined his shows through the years: Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette McDonald, Bette Davis, Grace Moore, the Don Cossack Chorus, Bob Hope, Marion Anderson, Eva Le Gallienne, Joseph Szgeti, Fritz Kreisler, Richard Crooks, Albert Spalding, San Carlo Opra Company, NBC Opera Company, James Melton, Gladys Swarthout, Signumd Romberg, Nadine Conner and Guy Lombardo. His encounters with famous performers were brief, and he said, “you’d have to see them more than I do to feel that you know them.”

For over three decades, Armand Collet Associates sponsored shows in 15 cities and 12 states and across the South from El Paso to Birmingham, but beginning in the mid-1980s, Coullet limited himself to the presentation of Broadway theatre in Jackson and only a few other Southern cities. Included have been: “Hello, Dolly!”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Man of La Mancha”, “Zorba”, “My Fair Lady” (which ran for seven weeks), “Mame”, “Cabaret”, “1776”,  “Your Own Thing”, “I Do, I Do”, “George M” and a sneak appearance by Mantovani and his Orchestra. Coullet said he considered bringing the Beatles to Memphis in 1966 the crowning glory of his career, but his role in the Fab Four’s appearance at the Mid-South Coliseum can’t be substantiated.

“The big ones carry me,” Coullet once said, referring to smash hits such as “My Fair Lady” and “Hello, Dolly,” but he had his share of bombs. His biggest bust as a promoter was “Cabaret,” here. Coullet considered Grace Moore and Liberace his most glamorous stars. Liberace sold out twice.

“Armand always said how surprising it was to think of the large number of elderly women who came to Liberace’s performances,” Adkisson said. “It was a matter of sex appeal, or what they thought was sex appeal, since of course he was gay. Anyway, Liberace would invite the women in the audience to come backstage after the performances, and he’d wink and mug, and say, ‘Oh, what is your name, darling?’ and the woman would say like ‘Mary’ or something and Liberace would go, ‘Oh, my dear Mary!’ or something. Armand said the first time Liberace appeared in a city he might make a little money for his appearance, might even lose a little, but Liberace would come back two years later and the promoter would make a big profit. That was Liberace’s modus operandi, that he could tour successfully all over the country because he felt a responsibility to the local promoter. Armand had Liberace here three times with sold-out houses. The little old ladies would like up and Liberace would take an hour or more to schmooze with them.”

Even after decades living in Mississippi, Coullet retained his French accent. “It’s the one thing I’m stuck with and can’t lose,” he once said. “I’m not trying to lose it. It’s my natural way of speaking. You must realize that when I first came to this country, the only words of English I knew were ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I had to learn English by myself. I would read the newspapers and, when I found a word I didn’t know, I would write it on a little piece of paper and tack it on the wall. I’d see the word every day until I learned it, then I’d take it down. By that time, there would be 10 or more new ones.” Muller Adkisson recalls that when Coullet promoted shows in New Orleans and south Louisiana, he would give the promotional commercial in English, and then he would give it in French. “Of course people flocked to the shows because they loved hearing the promotions in their everyday speech. ”

In his last published interview, in May, 1977, the 79-year old Coullet, preparing for an upcoming season which was to include the touring company of the Broadway production of Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” as well as “My Fair Lady” and “Same Time Next Year”, said, “In this business you can’t slow down. If you slow down, you’re dead. It took me 40 years to build up the following I have. There’s no retirement for an impresario. I’ll be retired when they put me in a pine box. Sure, I’ve slowed down a little with age, but not so you can tell. You can’t kill a good Frenchman.”

Coullet died New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Coullet (r) with Nelson Eddy

Sauce Florentine

Florentine means “spinach” in cook-talk, and this sauce is wonderful on lots and lots of stuff. I use a Mornay for a base, which is of course TOTAL BLASPHEMY, and mild peppers and/or whatever good onion is at hand, which of course consigns me to the coldest levels of hell beneath the very wings of Satan. The sauce should be creamy and savory rather than pungent, always served hot; a Rockefeller is a variation. Use a hard mild cheese and do NOT add parsley.

Asparagus florentine

Artichoke Virgins and Other Annoyances

Fruits and vegetables are an important part of anyone’s diet, but raw vegetables and fruits take preparation, and among the most labor-intensive is an artichoke, which–when it boils down to it–is nothing less than the flower bud of a big-ass thistle. Much like the oyster, it likely took an act of desperation for the first person to eat an an artichoke. The motivations of the first human to taste bovine milk are perhaps best left to speculation.

Once after a truly happy hour at a local bar, a companion and I stopped at the store on my way home and came upon a mound of beautiful, beautiful artichokes that were neither too tight nor too loose and had a bit of a purple blush about them, just like Martha says they should. I just had to get a couple. Then I called to my drinking buddy, who was cruising the watermelons, to grab a bud of garlic and a couple of lemons. After picking up a few more items we headed for the checkout counter where he espied my artichokes.

“And what are you going to do with these?” he asked. I immediately suggested a physical improbability. Unperturbed, he replied, “No, really, what are you going to do with it?” He admitted that he’d never eaten a freshly-prepared artichoke.

Inebriation, dear hearts, is a great initiator but a poor executor, which is how, about ten minutes later, I found myself alone in the kitchen with two beautiful artichokes, diminished incentive, and a hungry guest. Persevering, I heaved a vast sigh and began cooking.

To cook fresh artichokes, bring a half a quart of salted water to boil in a 2-quart saucepan, add no more than four truncated, trimmed, and stemmed artichokes, cover, bring to a rolling boil, and steam for about 20 minutes. When you can stick a toothpick in the heart of the bud without a lot of resistance, remove artichokes and plunge into cold water until cooled. Invert into a colander to drain. Serve with warm garlic butter, and teach virgins how to eat.

Love and Food

When it comes to food, love can exert a formidable influence. If you aren’t, like, totally spiritual, sex, the attraction if not the action, is probably the initial ingredient for a romance, but after that, sooner or later you’re going to have to eat together, which can be exhilarating and educational.

Yet–and alas–discovery can be breathtaking, but it requires an open mind. As such, it’s entirely possible that someone who loves greasy stuffed cabbage can learn from a lover how to adore creamy stuffed pasta, or vice versa. But dealing with extremes can be hazardous: a friend of mine who is a self-professed carnivore from way back once fell for this little slip of a girl who did not eat meat, so he sold off a custom-made barbecue grill and turned down his mother’s meat loaf. Twice. Even now, six years after his slip ran off with a zither player from Utah, his mom still brings it up.

Learning to live together is fraught with pitfalls, and food has the potential to be a more fundamental source of friction than ugly underwear or nasal hair. For those among us with discriminating dietary habits, it’s a safe bet that if you meet someone special in a natural foods dive, they’ll feel much the same way about pork roast as you do (which is not to say that soy products might not eventually become a bone of contention). But if you meet a mate in a bar that serves hamburgers and patriot fries, well, you’re just wide open for surprises, and if simply adjusting to eating together isn’t enough, learning to cook in the same place can be heart-breaking as well: formerly favored cookware might be set aside to make room for an exceedingly exotic batterie. That rooster roaster you were once so proud of might find itself set so far back in a cabinet that you might never lay eyes on it again. Be advised that condiments are always controversial.

You might also, as I did, find your palate challenged in totally unexpected ways, as when a housemate sought to seduce me with something novel and exciting in the form of a carrot omelet. Fortunately, omelets are quite versatile; you can put damn near anything in them, though I will admit that carrots initially struck me as an unlikely ingredient. After all, most omelets are served as savory rather than as sweet dishes, and carrots are among those vegetables I place on the sweet side.

Now, you can make a carrot omelet such as I was served, where the shredded carrots were sautéed in a little butter with green onions and a hint of garlic before being added to the egg mixture, and it would be (marginally) edible. But if I had been told that carrots were the only ingredient we had for an omelet (as it turned out, they weren’t; I later discovered a bar of cheddar in the butter tray), I might have suggested another method of preparation.

Dessert omelets are novelties nowadays, but anyone who has poured syrup over scrambled eggs can attest to their appeal. Sugar (a little less than two tablespoons) is added to two large beaten eggs and a teaspoon of water. While a bit of water is standard for most omelets, the added sugar makes for a nice caramel-type crust. Separate one egg white and whip until stiff before folding it into the mix, but before you make your omelet á la Crécy, make candied carrots.

For two people: trim, scrub and peel two carrots, slice on the bias, barely cover in simple syrup made with honey or brown sugar, simmer with three cloves and a pat of butter until the liquid is reduced and the carrots are done through. Remove the cloves and use these carrots as you would any omelet filling; a classicist would julienne them, but I don’t. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, serve with a tempest in a teapot.