Hometown Calhoun

Hometown Mississippi is informative and entertaining book compiled by James F. (Jim) Brieger and published privately in 1980. It’s also an important work, since it includes all of Mississippi’s towns and counties of record, with a short write-up providing significant data. These are the entries for Calhoun County; Pittsboro, as county seat, is first listed, then the others alphabetically.

CALHOUN COUNTY

Organized in 1852, Calhoun County is located in the Sand Clay Hills Soil Area of the state. It was the fifty-ninth county to organize and ranks thirtythird in area. The county was named for John C. Calhoun, Vice-President of the United States, and at the time of formation, Henry s. Foote was Governor of Mississippi, and Millard Fillmore was President of the United States. Calhoun was the home county of Dennis Murphree, twice Governor of Mississippi, 1927-28 and 1943-44.

PITTSBORO

Pittsboro was founded on July 26, 1852 along with Calhoun County. The county seat was temporarily located at Hartfords, four miles east of the present site of Pittsboro, with monthly court being held in a log building which was used as a courthouse, Hartford did not remain for long as the county seat as the geographical center of the county was determined to be within a few hundred yards of Camp Springs,

On July 15, 1852, the Board of Police met at this point to discuss the matter of a permanent county seat, and Ebenezer Gaston, a wealthy local citizen offered 160 acres as a gift to the county for the location of a seat of government. The gift was accepted by the board and the proposed new town was named Orrsville, for J.A. Orr who had been very instrumental in the organization of the county. The name of the town was later changed to Pittsboro, for Pittsboro, North Carolina, which was Mr. Orr’s original home.

The Odom Grocery Store was the first building to be constructed, and in 1853, the Pittsboro Academy was established, being conducted in a two-story log building. In 1886, a frame building was erected to house the Pittsboro Male and Female College, then in 1888, Honorable B.J. Lowery, noted educator and statesman, taught his first school as principal of this college. The red brick courthouse was built the same year as the log jail, in 1856. In this courthouse the Secession Convention was held in 1861, and many other events connected with the war and reconstruction centered around it.

Pittsboro has had its times of prosperity and adversity, but has remained the county seat throughout the years, with many attempts having been made to move it, but all failed. In 1922 the courthouse was destroyed by fire, with the loss of almost all the records.

BANNER

Located eight miles north of Brice, Banner is one of the oldest existing places in the county, being settled by the Finn family from Ireland in 1840. The story is told, that Uncle Mickey Finn gave his reason for coming to America was the fact that land was so high in his native Ireland that he could not afford to buy a burial plot for his family. When he bought his land here and gave it the name, Banner, he immediately built a house, then he marked off a family burying ground,

Several large planters and slave owners were permanently settled here before the Civil War, and the town was known as a social as well as an educational center. A college was established in 1889 which offered commercial and music courses, but with the establishment of public schools the college became extinct. Since the start of the 1900’s, the place has been on the decline because of its remote location,

BENELA

The origin of its name is not known, but Benela was established eight miles southeast of Pittsboro in 1840. There were settlers here in the early 1830’s, but Benela was not founded until 1840 when Hugh Gaston came here with several others to establish business enterprises,

In 1853, Dr. S.T. Buchanan, Captain Enoch, Wiley and Austin Woodward settled here and Benela soon became a thriving trade center. In 1865 the town boasted six stores, two saloons, a large water mill and manufacturing plant. Being located on the Yalobusha River, cotton was transported to Greenwood by keel boat, bringing back supplies on their return trip. Lumber was also shipped down the river in rafts until the railroad was built to Calhoun City in 1905.

The growth of Benela was impeded by the fact that the railroad missed the town, and its rivals, Calhoun City and Derma gained the supremacy in leadership growth, and as trading centers, The Church, mill, and school were finally abandoned and the community became a farming area, using other points as trading centers,

BENTLEY

Bentley, located ten miles southeast of Calhoun City, was established in 1844 by Jesse H. Bently, the first settler, who erected a water mill on nearby Bear Creek. The town was incorporated in 1911.

BIG CREEK

Big Creek was founded eight miles west of Calhoun City in the 1840’s, The first settlers were R. Chruthird and Abram Sellers in the early 1840’s, being joined by other pioneers between 1845 and 1855. At this time Big Creek was located two miles north of its present location and was the distributing point for the sale of whiskey, with a wholesale house having been opened here,

Being so far from the railroad, the growth of the town was slow but with the building of the highway, two miles to the south, Big Creek was moved to its present location near the highway in 1920 with more stores being added and a post office being established.

BOUNDS

About 1824, J.R, Bounds, a cattleman, settled almost midway between the Skuna and Yalobusha Rivers, about eight miles west of present-day Pittsboro. His brother, Henry Bounds, joined him in 1828 and they found an ideal cattle range between the two streams. The two brothers rented this land from an Indian sub-chief named Bob Cole during their first two years of settlement, but later bought the land.

BRUCE

Bruce was founded in 1927 when the E.L. Bruce Lumber Company purchased a vast acreage in this section, four miles north of Pittsboro and established their large mill three miles north of Pittsboro in the Skuna Valley. The company purchased the Thurman Barton farm which became the home of George Rogers, Superintendent of the Bruce interests.

Johnny Main Mountain, six miles east of Brue, is the highest point in the county, covering several acres. Some remarkable rock formations are found on the mountain, and Skuna River flows around the base on the north side. According to legend, this mountain was the home of a prominent Chickasaw Chief named Piomingo at the time the Indians occupied this section. The mountain received its name from Johnny Main, an old Dutchman who hunted and trapped here during the 1860’s.

BUSYTON

Busyton was established about 1865, four miles south of Sarepta, and at one time a post office was located two miles to the southeast, but it was discontinued in 1905. Sometime after 1905, when State Highway 9 was improved, J.T. Ivy built a store on the highway and called it Busyton.

CALHOUN CITY

Federal Land Records show that the site on which Calhoun City stands, ten miles south of Bruce, was conveyed to an Indian named Ish tah hath la, T.P. Gore purchased an entire section of 640 acres from this Indian, supposedly for a handful of bright-colored beads, a few furs, and several quarts of whiskey. Being a large slave owner, Gore cleared a plantation and lived an easy life, in which horse racing and cock fighting figured prominently. Before his death he is thought to have buried a great amount of gold on his plantation, but died without revealing its hiding place. He is buried near Calhoun City in a wooded section of his former plantation,

In 1900 the Gore property passed into the hands of T.L. Beadles and Jeff Boland, being purchased from them in 1904 by Frank Burkett and J.S. Rowe. The place was named Burkett for Frank Bukett, but the name was later changed to Calhoun City for John C, Calhoun. These men learned that the Mobile & Ohio Railroad was planning to build a branch line through this section and made plans for the building of a town. One mile east lived two other landowners who were demanding that the terminal be located on their land. A legal battle was fought, and the court decided in favor of both places, so just one mile east of Calhoun City was established the town of Derma, Because of this matter, hard feelings existed between the towns cor several years.

The present town of Calhoun City was surveyed and laid off in lots in 1905. That same year, a hotel was built and a central parkway was laid out, awaiting the time when Pittsboro would relinquish its claim to the county seat and a courthouse could be erected.

The year of 1906 brought the incorporation of Calhoun City as well as many new families. On the first Sunday in January, 1907, the first passenger train ariived in Calhoun City. This was a great event in the history of the town and people, many of whom had never seen a train, came from miles around to witness the arrival.

DENTONTOWN

Located fourteen miles southwest of Pittsboro.

DERMA

In 1905, upon learning of the railroad to be built from Okalona to Calhoun City, Frank Burkett and J.S. Rowe immediately made plans for the establishment of a town in the vicinity of Calhoun City. Just one mile east lived J.M. Smith and Dr. S.H. Lawrence who also proposed to build a depot and town, Heated controversy resulted in a court decision in favor of both places, and soon there sprang up two rival towns. It is said that in time, Captain Burkett and Dr, Lawrence, both Civil War Veterans, were able to ease the friction between the two towns to a large extent. During the early history of the town, Derma enjoyed gradual growth which continued until the depression of 1929, at which time the town began to decline, The town also suffered several disastrous fires from which it never recovered, but at its peak, Derma boasted two churches, fourteen stores, and an Agricultural High School.

About four miles southeast of Derma is the site of the boyhood home of Fox Conner who was promoted to the rank of Major General by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War I, Fox Conner was General Perishing’s fight hand man, and Perishing once stated that Fox Conner did more to help win the war than any one man he knew.

ELLARD

Located six miles northwest of Pittsboro,

ELZY

Settlers first came to this site, three miles north of Vardaman, in the 1840!s, and called the settlement Cherryhill. The place was later named Elzy, supposedly for B.M. Elzy an early merchant. A post office was established here in the mid 1850’s and was in operation until 1905. The village began its decline when the railroad was built through three miles to the north, and the railroad accommodations attracted most of the residents to Vardaman,

HARDIN TOWN

Hardin Town was established and named by Johnnie Hardin who came to this site, four miles east of Calhoun City, in 1845. The place also seems to have been known as Hopewell, since the post office, which was in operation from 1880 until 1903, and the school was known as Hopewell. Hardin Town was never much more than a one store settlement, and that became extinct during the depression of 1929.

HARTFORD

The extinct town of Hartford is historic in the fact that it was the first county seat of Calhoun County. Established in 1830, Hartford served as the seat of government from January until July of 1852, at which time Pittsboro, four miles to the southwest, was selected as the permanent county seat. Martin Murphree, Grandfather of Dennis Murphree, was one of the first settlers in this section, coming in 1835. A few years later Hartford had become a thriving trade center, with a furniture and jug factory being operated by 0. K. Bennet in the early 1840’s. Soon after the establishment of the county seat at Pittsboro, the town of Hartford began to decline, and by 1886 was an extinct village.

HOLLIS

Prior to 1860, Alexander Hollis and his brother, Marvin V. Hollis settled in this locality, three miles east of Derma and the place was named for these two brothers. Hollis was no more than a rural community until the building of the railroad in 1905, and it became a flag station. At that time a post office was opened and the town became incorporated in 1910. Hollis prospered for a few years but when the post office was discontinued in 1922 it began to decline. The nearby larger towns drew most of the trade and by 1927 the town was almost extinct.

LOYD

Located eight miles east of Pittsboro, the name origin is uncertain, but it is known that the community was settled before 1860. A post office was established at Loyd following the Civil War and in 1900 there were three stores in operation. The post office was discontinued in 1910 and mail was received from Vardaman.

MABRY

Mabry was a railroad switch located a short distance west of the depot at Derma. The switch served a large planing mill operated by G.C. and I. Mabry of Derma. Mabry became extinct with the abolishment of the switch in 1939.

PARTEE

Located seven and one-half miles west of Pittsboro,

PITTMAN

Pittman was established as a flag station on the Mississippi and Skuna Valley Railroad, twelve miles west of Bruce. The station was named for Sam Pittman who owned the land where the station was located before it was sold to the Bruce Lumber Company.

REID

It is thought that Young Phillips, who arrived here about 1850, was the first settler in this section, nine miles north of Vardaman, Other early settlers included the Hardins, Campbells, Morgans, and the Reid family, for whom the town was named. A post office had been in operation for several years when a store was opened by Tom Phillips in 1880. Three other stores were eventually built, and Reid enjoyed good business activity until the building of a railroad to the south in 1904. At that time the population began to shift to the railroad, business started to decline, and in 1910, the post office was discontinued.

RETREAT

About 1890, Stewart Warner opened a merchantile store near his home, ten miles northwest of Calhoun City, and in time, the settlement gained a post office which was named Retreat. Within a few years the post office was discontinued, and at that time the business of Stewart Warner was closed and Warner moved to Big Creek.

SABOUGLA

 

This settlement, located eleven miles southwest of Calhoun City, was first known as Davis Town, for J.W. Davis, who settled near here in the 1830’s. About 1880 when & post office was granted, the community was given the name, Sabougla for the creek on which it is located.

SAREPTA

Located eleven miles northeast of Bruce, it is thought that John Hellum was the first settler, coming in 1836 from Tennessee and acquired land a few miles north of the present site of Sarepta. Dr. Andrew Roane, son of Governor Archibald Roane of Tennessee, settled here in 1840 and at that time there was one store which was operated by a man named McLarty.

There is a story told of a happening in Sarepta, when in the 1880’s the backwoodsmen of the area had the habit of coming to town and taking the law in their own hands. It seems that a government man named Wise came to Mississippi in 1884 in search of a criminal. When he reached Oxford, he was reassigned to locate and arrest two brothers named Dock and Jim Bishop. The two brothers were wanted for the killing of two Harmon boys in a drunken brawl near Sarepta. Jim Bishop was finally located by Wise, who made friends with him, thinking that he could be persuaded to betray his brother. He gave Jim Bishop a bottle of drugged whiskey for his brother, setting a time and place for his capture.

Instead of betraying Dock, Jim betrayed Mr. Wise, and hiding behind a tree they ambushed him, filling him full of buckshot. They then buried him in a shallow grave where he was found a few days later. About three years later Dock Bishop was captured, convicted, and hanged for his crimes. A song, “The Ballad of Dock Bishop,” was then composed by one of the local citizens, and is probably still sung occasionally.

SHEPHERD

Located three and one-half miles northwest of Pittsboro,

SKUNA Located six and one-hal miles west of Pittsboro.

SLATE SPRINGS

Located nine miles south of Calhoun City, the place took its name from the springs located west of town on the Slate Springs-Grenada Road. The exact settlement date is uncertain, but it is thought by local people to be older than Pittsboro. If this is true, then Slate Springs could possibly be the oldest settlement in the county. Slate Springs appears to have been a trading center in the early 1800’s. At that time, in addition to the saloons, there were two stores, the first one probably being operated by a man named Woodward. Between 1880 and 1890, a post office, flour mill, and two churches were added. Also, at this time the Fox College was opened, with Fuller Fox as the first teacher.

TRUSTY

This small community, located twelve miles northwest of Sarepta, falls just within the county line. A store, in which was housed the post office, was given the name Trusty, for a local resident. The store as well as the post office have been discontinued, the Trusty family, along with other residents have moved away, and little now remains to mark the site of the settlement.

VANCE

Now listed as being extinct, Vance was located about two miles east of Slate Springs, being named for William Vance, who in 1837 was the first settler. After building a log cabin in 1837, Vance established a water mill on Shulispear Creek for the purpose of grinding grain. In 1844, Vance cleared a plot of ground about 300 yards from his mill on which to erect a larger home. He died before the home was built, and on being buried in the clearing, the spot came to be known as the Vance Graveyard, being used by the community which later sprang up.

For many years wheat as well as corn was ground at the mill, and during the Civil War and Reconstruction, this old mill provided bread for many people. Shulispear Creek was an ideal fishing spot, and people bringing their grain from many miles away would take advantage of the opportunity to camp for several days at a time, fishing and hunting while their grain was being ground. After William Vance’s death his son operated the mill for a few years, then it was sold and operated under the new owners until it was discontinued in 1914.

VARDAMAN

This settlement, four miles east of Derma, was originally known as Ticky Bin, and several stories have been told as to how the name originated. In those days the cattle grazed in the bottom lands where ticks were found, not only on the cattle but on the grass and trees as well. In 1872 a store was opened by Tom Richardson, but the chief industry in this section, especially from 1895 until 1903. was the stave industry. Handhewn staves were made all up and down the Yalobusha and Skuna Rivers, and at the time of the Paris World’s Fair, several staves were sent to the fair and received first prize.

By 1904 the community of Ticky Bin had increased in population and the need of a post office was realized by the citizens. The long hoped for railroad had. been surveyed so a petition was sent to President Theodore Roosevelt for the establishment of a post office to be named Vardaman, in honor of James K. Vardaman. The office was granted but was named Timberville instead of Vardaman as proposed. As the town grew, business firms, schools, and churches were established. The citizens, never satisfied with the name, Timberville, requested and was granted the name change to Vardaman.

Old Courthouse, Pittsboro

An Orchid in the Kitchen

In November 2015, Hershey’s announced that it would swap out the artificial ingredient “vanillin” for the real deal in its kisses and chocolate bars. Vanilla extract climbed to $150, $200, then $275 a gallon. In March, 2017, cyclone Enawo devastated Madagascar, the world’s leading producer of vanilla, and given the three to  four-year life cycle of vanilla, extract spiked on March 7 to $700 a gallon.

How is it that vanilla, the most alluring essence in the world, lush and sensual, now is consigned as a byword for the bland and banal? Lagriffe wrote that vanilla “is not, strictly speaking, either a spice or a seasoning; it would seem more exact to call it a perfume,” which might go a long way in explaining its proverbial usage on country sirens’ ears  ankles.

Vanilla—like chocolate—comes from Central America and is the only member of the orchid family—which some maintain is the largest plant family in the world—that is widely used as a foodstuff. The main species harvested for vanilla is Vanilla planifolia, a vine that can grow up to thirty feet long. The flowers are naturally pollinated by native bees or by hummingbirds, none of which—unlike the plant itself—have flourished outside of Mesoamerica, but in 1841 a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method using a beveled sliver of bamboo was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion that is still used.

The fruit—a seed capsule—if left on the plant ripens and opens at the end (it’s here that I mention the root of ‘vanilla’ is ‘vagina’); as it dries, the fruits take on a diamond-dusted appearance, which the French—who have all these chic names for everything—call givre (hoarfrost). It then releases the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, and in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, particularly ice cream, these seeds are recognizable as black specks, but both the pod and the seeds are used in cooking.

Mexican vanilla is still the most intense and robust, but closer to home, when buying vanilla extract in the store examine the label and don’t purchase any with ‘vanillin’ on the label. For many cooks—me included—vanilla is an important addition to almost any cake or cookie, and while you might be tempted to serve hot chocolate or cider with a cinnamon stick, try serving cups with a piece of vanilla bean.

An Ill Wind from Mississippi

In February, 1944, Laura Z. Hobson, a 43-year-old, divorced Jewish mother in Manhattan, read an article in Time magazine that reported Mississippi Rep. John Rankin had called Walter Winchell a “kike.” Hobson was outraged, even more so to read that nobody in Congress protested, particularly during the height of the Holocaust.

Hobson wrote about the Rankin incident in her first draft of Gentleman’s Agreement, the story of a Gentile reporter who pretends to be Jewish to investigate anti-Semitism. That someone as all-American as the reporter, played by Gregory Peck, succeeded with such a masquerade was a twist on the traditional black “passing” story. The novel was serialized by Cosmopolitan in 1946 and published by Simon & Schuster in 1947. In 1948, the movie, produced by Darryl Zanuck, received the Oscar for best picture.

Hot and Sour Fried Cabbage with Bacon

Fry bacon until crisp, remove, drain and slice into small pieces. Chop or shred cabbage finely. Heat pan drippings, add cabbage and bacon with more oil (vegetable) as needed. Stir vigorously until cabbage is coated and just tender. Add vinegar and hot sauce to taste, ground black pepper and salt to taste. Finely sliced sweet onions–cooked or raw–are always a welcome option.

Ignatius at the Hop

“A small and sallow figure whose shorts hung clumsily in the crotch, whose spindly legs looked too naked in comparison to the formal garters and nylon socks that hung near the ankle,” resplendent in a red beard, besotted by the milk of human kindness—and perhaps feeling not a little guilty—stands on the porch of the Reilly home ready to provide some comfort to Irene Reilly. Patrolman Mancuso had found out that Irene couldn’t afford the a $1000 fine for drunk and destructive driving he’d given her.

Mancuso looked at the Plymouth and saw the deep crease in its roof and the fender, filled with concave circles, that was separated from the body by three or four inches of space. VAN CAMP’S PORK AND BEANS was printed on the piece of cardboard taped across the hole that had been the rear window. Stopping by the grave, he read REX in faded letters on the cross. Then he climbed the worn brick steps and heard through the closed shutters a booming chant.

 Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls, they don’t cry-yi-yi.
They don’t cry.
Big girls, they don’t cry… yi.

 While he was waiting for someone to answer the bell, he read the faded sticker on the crystal of the door, “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.” Below a WAVE held her finger to lips that had turned tan. (p. 33)

The “chant” Mancuso hears is the refrain from “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” is a song written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio. Originally recorded by The Four Seasons, “Big Girls” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 17, 1962, and spent five weeks in the top position. The song—along with the movies that Ignatius sees at the Prytania—provides an important signature for the novel’s time setting. Mancuso follows Irene into the kitchen and they commiserate over coffee and donuts. Soon enough, they begin to discuss Ignatius.

“He’s out in the parlor right now looking at TV. Every afternoon, as right as rain, he looks at that show where them kids dance.” In the kitchen the music was somewhat fainter than it had been on the porch. Patrolman Mancuso pictured the green hunting cap bathed in the blue-white glow of the television screen. “He don’t like the show at all, but he won’t miss it. You oughta hear what he says about them poor kids.” (p. 35) “Oh, my God!” Ignatius bellowed from the front of the house. “Oh, my heavens! These girls are doubtless prostitutes already. How can they present horrors like this to the public? What an egregious insult to good taste. Do I believe the total perversion that I am witnessing?” Ignatius screamed from the parlor. The music had a frantic, tribal rhythm; a chorus of falsettos sang insinuatingly about loving all night long. “The children on that program should all be gassed,” Ignatius said as he strode into the kitchen in his nightshirt. Then he noticed the guest and said coldly, “Oh.” (p. 36)

Most of us will recognize “the show where them kids dance” as “American Bandstand,” but in New Orleans, in November, 1962, the popular local edition of was “The John Pela Show.” Pela was a staff announcer for local station WWL-TV who in 1961 took over hosting duties of the show originally titled “Saturday Hop.” Featuring a studio full of New Orleans teenagers dancing to the latest pop hits, and with groovy, era-appropriate graphics—including a stylized riverboat–setting the mood, the live, hour-long dance party originated from the WWL studios every Saturday a must-see for NOLA teens in the day.

Ignatius maintained an extreme opinion.

“The ironic thing about that program,” Ignatius was saying over the stove, keeping one eye peeled so that he could seize the pot as soon as the milk began to boil, “is that it is supposed to be an exemplum to the youth of our nation. I would like very much to know what the Founding Fathers would say if they could see these children being debauched to further the cause of Clearasil. However, I always suspected that democracy would come to this.” He painstakingly poured the milk into his Shirley Temple mug. “A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.” (p. 37)

After a tumult with Irene, Ignatius retreated to his room.

He slammed his door and snatched a Big Chief tablet from the floor. Throwing himself back among the pillows on the bed, he began doodling on a yellowed page. After almost thirty minutes of pulling at his hair and chewing on the pencil, he began to compose a paragraph.

Were Hroswitha with us today, we would all look to her for counsel and guidance. From the austerity and tranquility of her medieval world, the penetrating gaze of this legendary Sybil of a holy nun would exorcise the horrors which materialize before our eyes in the name of television. If we could only juxtapose one eyeball of this sanctified woman and a television tube, both being roughly of the same shape and design, what a phantasmagoria of exploding electrodes would occur. The images of those lasciviously gyrating children would disintegrate into so many ions and molecules, thereby effecting the catharsis which the tragedy of the debauching of the innocent necessarily demands. (p. 40)

Considered the first female writer from the German-speaking lands, the first female historian, the first person since antiquity to write dramas in the Latin West, and the first female poet in Germany, Hroswitha (c. 935–973) was a secular canoness at Gandersheim Abbey In Lower Saxony. She has been called “the most remarkable woman of her time”, and an important figure in the early history of women. Hroswitha’s six short dramas are considered to be her most important works. Ignatius’s conjuration of Hroswitha likely stems from her position of a dramatist, with the medieval stage providing a parallel to a televised dance floor, making  her somewhat of a patron saint of public performance. She’s an interesting choice for his appeal, since Tool most certainly would have been aware of Hroswitha’s reputation as a proto-feminist, which jars somewhat with Ignatius’s position as an ultra-conservative Catholic:

“I do not support the current pope. He does not at all fit my concept of a good, authoritarian pope. Actually, I am opposed to the relativism of modern Catholicism quite violently.” (p. 45)

Finally, lest we take recoil at Ignatius’s dire punishments for (presumably) innocent teenagers, bear in mind that Ignatius is a medievalist, and though diminished in light of more contemporary horrors, the Middle Ages were cruel. Ignatius is simply following the script.

Bruin Cheese Grits

If there’s any mandatory dish for Southern breakfast buffets, it’s cheese grits, but there’s no definitive recipe, just endless variations of cheese and cooked grits baked in whatever oven-proof container someone might deign to call a casserole. This recipe comes from Arkansas, where they know about grits, and is from the châtelaine of an old plantation house, which in my world gives it some distinction. Note please that it is made with grits, not quick grits, but the latter will do in a pinch. It also features dry cheeses instead of gooey cheddars and runny Velveetas.

Bring 1 quart milk to a boil. Add a half cup butter and a cup of grits. Cook, stirring constantly until the mixture is the consistency of oatmeal, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add salt and pepper, and beat the mixture well with an eggbeater (a hand mixer works just fine). Add 3 tablespoons butter, stir in a half cup grated Gruyère, and pour into a greased 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan, and bake at 350 for an hour. This dish can be made the day before, serves 10, very good with game.

 

Hood

The heat in the room was stifling, and the smell of stale incense, feces, and decay as well as something sharp and acidic, was overpowering. If it weren’t for the open window in the back of the room, Hugh knew that a thick haze of stench would have kept them out until a fan had been brought in. As it was he felt nauseous.

“He’s over here, Hugh,” said Derek, the patrolman who found the body late that morning. He pointed to an overturned chair that once faced a computer desk. The screen glowed with the image of a rapper who was still hopping and gesturing, the music still audible in the headphones around the corpse’s neck.

Hugh stepped over and saw the body, that of a young white man, once muscular, once handsome, now swollen and blotched with purple patches. He wore a yellow t-shirt with a pattern of green palm leaves and a pair of long, loose shorts. His hands were at his chest, and his tongue protruded between white, even teeth. The desk was in a corner between two long tables, both containing two large rectangular glass tanks without covers, all except the one nearest the window, which contained a large piece of wood, a hollow rock, sawdust and a small pan of water.

“Looks like he had a lizard,” Derek said.

Hugh turned and looked at him. “A lizard?”

“Yeah, an iguana, one of those big ugly-ass lizards,” Derek said. “People keep them for pets. I wouldn’t have one of the damn things in my house, I’ll tell you that. Jesus.”

Hugh looked at the tanks. “Just one?”

“Looks like it to me. Must have been in that last tank, see? It’s the only one that has anything else in it, and there ain’t no water.”

“A dead man with an iguana,” Hugh said. “I’ve been chief of police in this town for seven years now, and this beats all I’ve ever seen. Call Moreno and get him to pick up the body so we can look at this place. And open another damned window! Bring a fan!”

…………

The body was found in a one-bedroom apartment in a small complex near the downtown business district on a street that ran parallel to the concrete-encased creek that still provided the nearby river with a venue for floodwater, but that didn’t prevent rampant development along the stream from downtown well into an old sedate residential district on higher ground upstream. The apartment complex had a variety of single and double bed apartments, and it was near a small shady park with picnic tables, a playground and two basketball courts that was always active with people, even in the hottest months in George, Mississippi.

Hugh didn’t have a forensics team in his department. Given the declining finances of the city, he considered himself lucky to have a secretary.  But he did have a county coroner, who was an exception to the general rule of limited experience when it came to coroners in the rural South. The coroner for Poindexter County was Abraham Moreno, who for one thing was a licensed physician. Moreno was also a man of parts, having served in the Peace Corps during the Sixties and traveled around the world with his late wife before settling the little city of George with his daughter. When Hugh asked him why the hell he’d come to this piece of backwoods to make a home, Moreno said, “To go fishing, of course. That’s what old men do, Chief. Well, that and grow roses, but it’s too hot here for roses.”

Hugh went back to the station and settled in for a long afternoon of complaints, most of which his secretary Kelly dealt with, but some had to be dealt with personally. One such call came from the mayor, the Honorable Claude Thompson, who by the generous rule of the town charter, had the authority to fire the chief at the drop of a hat, and was not above reminding Hugh of that.

“Hugh, I’ve been getting calls all afternoon about that body on Henry Street. What the hell is going on?”

“Claude, we’ve secured the scene and Moreno has the body,” Hugh said. “I’ll call you when I have more to tell you.”

“Jerry Wesson called me out of his mind. In case you didn’t know it, Alderman Wesson lives one street over on Olive. I also got a call from Reverend Alice Monroe, whose church happens to be on the corner, and just in case you didn’t know, the victim was her step-son.”

Claude looked at the ceiling and counted to three. “Hugh, do you want me to call them?”

“That’s the last goddamned thing I want you to do,” Claude thundered. “Just get your ass in gear. Do I need to call the coroner’s office and talk to that foreigner?”

“He’s from New Orleans, Claude.”

“I don’t give a shit. You tell him to get his ass in gear too.”

Hugh stared at the dead phone, then called Moreno. “Abe, I’m over a barrel.”

“That makes two of us, Hugh. You should come here and look at this. Do you have any men at the crime scene?”

“I’ve got a patrol car on the street, but that’s it.”

“Good. Just get here as fast as you can,” Moreno said. “It wasn’t an iguana.”

Pepper Cheese Biscuits

Cut a stick and a half of butter into four cups self-rising flour. Add one cup grated cheddar cheese, one cup raw chopped mild red pepper, and enough sweet milk for a stiff dough. Roll out, cut into rounds and bake in an oiled skillet in a hot oven until lightly browned. Serve hot or cold filled with shaved ham and herb cream cheese.