B-Flat Beer Bread

The recipe is breathtakingly fundamental, and the results are consistently satisfying. The bread is light, even-textured, slightly sour, fragrant, and a bit crumbly with a nice crust. Lightly mix three cups of self-rising flour, a tablespoon of sugar, and a 12-ounce can of beer. I used Miller Lite (I think). The dough should be a little lumpy and sticky. Pour into a well-greased loaf pan lined with parchment paper and bake at 350 in a pre-heated oven for 90 minutes. It should thump hollow.  Brush with melted butter while warm.

The Singer in the Arms of Dawn

Though considered “coarse” by our doyen of Southern gardening, Elizabeth Lawrence (among others), she, along with almost every garden writer, mentions the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia roundifolia) in the same breath with Monet’s gardens at Giverny where in late summer, tithonia, along with many varieties of the more familiar helianthus sunflowers, set the artist’s oasis ablaze, their towering branches tipped with blossoms of red, yellow, and orange.

The Mexican sunflower was first described by the British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who visited the United States in 1877. He came at the invitation of American botanist Asa Gray, who with Dalton intended to investigate the connection between the floras of eastern United States and those of eastern continental Asia and Japan. It was during this visit that he visited the American Southwest where—in addition to meeting Brigham Young—Hooker collected specimens of the plant, which he sent to England that year along with over a thousand others. As is the custom, Hooker, as the discoverer of the species, was entitled to give it a name, and for reasons that may forever remain unfathomed, he named it after the bridegroom of Aurora, goddess of the dawn.

Tithonus was a prince of Troy, the son of King Laomedon by the Naiad Strymo. He was a talented musician with a beautiful voice. His brother was Priam, the last king of Troy. Aurora fell in love with the young prince, and took him to Olympus to be her groom. Aurora asked Zeus to make him immortal and he agreed, but she had not thought to ask also that he should remain young. So it came to pass that he grew old, but could not die. Helpless at last, unable to move hand or foot, he prayed for death, but there was no release for him; he must live on forever with old age pressing upon him. In time, he shrank and shriveled until at last Aurora, with a feeling for the natural fitness of things, turned him into a cicada, who sings in the morning sun.

Seeds must be started in warm soil. Likewise, the seedlings will not tolerate cool weather. If begun in April, the plants require staking by September. Though smaller, more compact varieties are available, these flowers are best grown for their height and profusion of bloom. The old ‘Torch’  is my stand-by for height and color in sunny beds. Tithonia reseeds sporadically, but volunteers are vigorous.

On the Beach

The end of the world is stone,
pitted with little bones, waves
going this way and that, a moon
on a pole, and Africa in the distance,
afire. I have come a fur piece.

 

Ars Voces: Kim Sessums – Listening with the Eye

Eudora Welty told me when I was doing her portrait bust and we were talking about where the creative muse comes from that she was just a listener. If you sit in a restaurant or go to a football game or sit in a mall and listen to a conversation, there are stories there, stories all around you. For me, those types of experiences lead to visual art; sometimes it’s portraying a particular individual, or it may be something about that individual that prompts me to carry it to an image.

The subject doesn’t always tell me that it’s a piece of sculpture or a watercolor. It’s more the emotion of it and how I’m going to get it out. But I usually start everything with loose sketches, on a napkin in a restaurant or on the back of a medical chart. Sometimes it’s a study in words; when I did the Civil War sculpture in Vicksburg, I probably wrote forty or fifty pages of text about what I thought that piece was about before I put anything into a form that someone could look at. It informed what the piece eventually became.

I grew up on a dirt road in Scott County and started studying physiology and human anatomy in college, which appealed to the artist inside me. I was already doing art. In 1976, when I was a senior in high school, a buddy of mine was working for a publishing company as a salesman. He had a big tabletop book of paintings and studies by an artist named Andrew Wyeth. It just set me on my ear. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But it wasn’t how did he do that; my question was why did he do it and what was he trying to tell?

It took me a lifetime to work through the process of reading and studying and looking at the images, trying to figure out what he was doing and mostly learning that he was expressing emotional content through a visible image. Wyeth might have done a painting of a deer hanging by a chain from a limb at Keurner’s house, but really, for him, it was about Keurner fighting in World War I and using a rifle to kill people. Keurner had told him about shooting humans and seeing human blood spilled. So there were these different meanings to paintings that looked like one thing to somebody but something else to the artist.”

That really intrigued me because I’ve got a lot of stuff inside that I want to get out. There are some things that are appropriate to create, and other things that are a little bit hard to create. How do you communicate human loss? How do you communicate loneliness? How do you communicate trauma in childhood? How do you get those things out? Well, for me it came out in things like a portrait of Uncle Bennie sitting in a rocking chair that meant all sorts of personal things to me.

I was really surprised to find out that when other people saw my work, if it was good enough, it took them to somewhere in their own life. It prompted them to think of something completely different than what I was thinking, but they would look at it and were moved by it.

Andrew Bucci: Art, Food, and History

As incredulous as it may sound to us now, in the 1940s the Old Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg was under threat of destruction from the very city itself.

The building is perched on the highest point in Vicksburg on land given by the family of the city’s founder, Newitt Vick. Construction began in the summer of 1858 on what was then to be a new Court House for Warren County. Contractors were the Weldon Brothers of Rodney, Mississippi, who used 100 highly skilled artisans to make the brick and erect the building, which was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000. During the War, the building dominated the city’s skyline and was the target of much Union shelling but suffered only one major hit. It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U.S. Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Enjoying an After-Dinner Pipe-Bucci

With the construction of a new Warren County Courthouse in 1939, the Old Courthouse stood practically vacant for years, and there was talk of its demolition. What was possibly planned to take its place on the highest point in the former Gibraltar of the Confederacy goes (perhaps mercifully) unrecorded. But a local activist, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, realized the significance of the building and established the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the purpose of preserving the structure. In 1947 she was elected president of the society and with the help of a few volunteers began cleaning the building and collecting artifacts.

On June 3, 1948 the museum opened its doors, where she continued to work on a volunteer basis for many years. Eva Davis was a local celebrity; she had a daily radio show, “Court Square”, which was a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg for many years. She put out two cookbooks, Court Square Recipes and Mississippi Mixin’s, both likely in the 1950s, though neither book is dated. A grateful public added the name Eva W. Davis Memorial to the Old Courthouse Museum several years before her death in 1974.

Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci
Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci

Mississippi Mixin’s was illustrated by her fellow townsman and renowned Mississippi artist, Andrew Bucci. Sadly, Bucci’s art is reproduced in black and white, but the impact of the images is still powerful, perhaps even somewhat enhanced. Most of Bucci’s artwork in the book is comprised of small images for chapter headings, doubtless resized from larger works, but two large images are printed full-page (5.5×7). Again, dating these works has so far been unsuccessful and it is not known whether the original artwork still exists.

At least one image is by artist Suzanne Wilder, who was a student in the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a popular resort in Way, Mississippi that was established in 1889. The Mississippi Art Colony was founded at Allison’s Wells in 1948, and Bucci along with noted Jackson artist Mildred Wolfe taught there until 1963, when the resort was destroyed by fire, then relocated to Utica, Mississippi.

A Gay Congressman from Mississippi

Jon Clifton Hinson was born in Tylertown in Walthall County in southwestern Mississippi, in 1942, and attended public schools. In 1959, he worked as a page for Democratic U. S. representative John Bell Williams, who subsequently became governor of Mississippi in 1968. Hinson graduated from the University of Mississippi at Oxford in 1964, and joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve, in which he served until 1970.

Hinson worked on the U.S. House staff as a doorman in 1967, and then served on the staffs of representatives Charles H. Griffin, a Democrat, and Thad Cochran, a Republican. In 1978, Cochran ran successfully for the United States Senate, and Hinson was elected to succeed Cochran in the U.S. House of Representatives for Mississippi’s 4th congressional district. With 51.6 percent of the vote, Hinson defeated the Democrat John H. Stennis, the son of U.S. senator John C. Stennis, who finished with 26.4 percent of the vote. The remaining ballots were cast for independent candidates. Hinson entered the House in 1979.

During his re-election campaign in 1980, Hinson admitted that in 1976, while an aide to Senator Thad Cochran, he had been arrested for committing an obscene act after he exposed himself to an undercover policeman at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Hinson denied that he was homosexual and blamed his problems on alcoholism. He said that he had reformed and refused to resign. He won re-election with a plurality of 38.97 percent of the vote. Independent Leslie B. McLemore polled 29.8 percent, and Democrat Britt Singletary received 29.4 percent. Hinson was arrested again on February 4, 1981, and charged with attempted sodomy for performing oral sex on an African-American male employee of the Library of Congress in a restroom of the House of Representatives.

At that time, homosexual acts were still criminalized even between consenting adults. The charge was a felony that could have resulted in up to ten years in prison, as well as fines of up to $10,000. Since both parties were consenting adults (and social attitudes were changing), the United States Attorney’s office reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. Facing a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, Hinson pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted sodomy the following day and was released without bail pending a trial scheduled for May 4, 1981. Soon thereafter he checked himself into a Washington, D.C.-area hospital for treatment. Hinson later received a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended, and a year’s probation, on condition that he continued counseling and treatment.

Hinson resigned on April 13, 1981, early in his second term. He said that his resignation had been “the most painful and difficult decision of my life.” He was succeeded in the House by Wayne Dowdy, a Democrat, who won the special election held in the summer of 1981. Soon afterward Hinson acknowledged that he was homosexual and became an activist for gay rights. He later helped to organize the lobbying group “Virginians for Justice” and fought against the ban on gays in the military. He also was a founding member of the Fairfax Lesbian and Gay Citizens Association in Fairfax County. He never returned to Mississippi but lived quietly in the Washington area, first in Alexandria, Virginia, and then Silver Spring, Maryland. Hinson also disclosed that he survived a 1977 fire that killed nine people at the Cinema Follies, a Washington theater that catered to gay customers. He was rescued from under a pile of bodies, and was one of only four survivors.

It’s safe to assume that there are closeted government officials at every level—federal, state and local, doubtless from both parties—who are representing their electorate in good faith to the public trust with which they’re invested. From our perspective Hinson’s crash and fall seems not so much a tragedy as it is a farce, the ridiculous result of a man coerced, perhaps even forced into a role he could not play. It’s impossible for us to imagine the pressures put upon him to become a pillar of the Republican Party in its struggle for a stranglehold on the state of Mississippi, but the weight broke the man, reduced him to disgrace, poverty and exile. Hinson himself is far from blameless; as an openly gay man he would never have been elected to any office in the state of Mississippi, but there’s no reason to doubt that he could have represented his district capably had he exercised more discretion if not to say caution in his personal affairs. Perhaps that’s what he was trying to do, but it’s more probable that like many gay men of his generation in the South, he only knew clandestine solicitation as a venue for sexual commerce.

Hinson, unremembered for any legislation and with no other legacy than creating an eddy in the incessant tide of Republication domination in Mississippi, died in July, 1995 in Fairfax County, VA.

We Made a Rainbow Cake!

Jake saw an image of a rainbow cake somewhere and just had to make one. It wasn’t even called a rainbow cake in any sort of caption; it was just a random image on a blog somewhere, but he found it beautiful, and I did, too. But when he said he wanted to make one, well, I kind of tingled in my toes. You’d never know it, but Jake is color-blind. I’m not sure how extensive it is, and he’s not either, but when he pointed to that gorgeous slice of multi-colored cake on the monitor and said he wanted to make it, I offered to help. It was, after all, the least I could do.

Since this was such an experimental venture, we used a commercial white cake mix and a canned icing; after all, our objective was drag queen appearance over substance. The most indispensable element of the project was two (count ‘em, two!) boxes of McCormick’s assorted food coloring and egg dye. Each box has formulas for achieving eight colors (red, yellow, green and blue as well as pretty purple, orange sunset, teal, mint green and dusty rose).

Jake used two boxes of cake mix, split the batter into six equal amounts and then colored each bowl of batter. Because there was less batter per baking pan, oven time was reduced by at least five minutes. Jake wanted to arrange the layers to his own satisfaction, but I told him that while that might be interesting, it might be better on this effort for us to stick to Roy G. Biv (less the “i” I think). After a brief discussion, the pans were numbered and labeled. Once cooled, we assembled the cake. It sat overnight in a white icing, and when the first slice was taken the next day everyone went, “Ooo . . . “.

We both just grinned.

Jeff and Oscar

In what must be one of the more improbable encounters in history, Oscar Wilde, a giant, tragic figure, paid a visit to Jefferson Davis, the towering icon of another, greater tragedy, at Beauvoir, Davis’ home on the Gulf Coast. I reproduce the following passage about the meeting from Hudson Strode’s final volume of his biography, Jefferson Davis: Tragic Hero, the Last Twenty-Five Years, 1864-1889 (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), in its entirety, since it provides a well-rounded account. I also include a passage from a letter Wilde wrote a week later that mentions his visit.

Through the winter and spring of 1882, Mrs. Davis had been reading accounts of the sensationally successful lecture tour of an eccentric young British poet named Oscar Wilde. When she learned that he was to deliver a lecture in Memphis on June 12, she regretted that it would be inconvenient for her to visit the Hayses (friends in Memphis) at that time. But Maggie Hays sent her a copy of a thin paper called Meriwether’s Weekly, dated June 17, 1882, which further excited her interest. Lee Meriwether had had an interview with Wilde in his suite at Gaston’s hotel in Memphis. His older brother Avery had said to him, “Wilde wears knee breeches and keeps a sunflower pinned to the lapel of his coat, but there’s more to him than that. Go and interview him.”

Meriwether found Wilde’s sitting room “in disorder, with magazines and photographs strewn on the floor, and on the table were the two volumes of Jefferson Davis’s Rise and Fall published the year before.” Meriwether told Wilde that he had been Mr. Davis’ neighbor in Memphis and during his childhood had known him well. “Jefferson Davis is the man I would like most to see in the United States,” Wilde said, and declared that it was remarkable that it took Northern armies numbering three million soldiers four years to whip him.” He asked where Davis lived now. Lee told him on the Gulf Coast about four hundred roundabout miles from Memphis. “That’s a long way to go to meet anyone,” said the poet-lecturer, “but not too far to go to see such a man as Jefferson Davis”

Wilde’s manager, however, had already secured an engagement in New Orleans and he arranged one in Mobile two days later. In time, Wilde wrote the ex-President a “most winning” letter, asking to be allowed to stop at Beauvoir and pay homage. Mrs. Davis urged her husband to invite him to stay the night. Davis was reluctant; he could not help but conclude that, despite his tremendous successes on the lecture platform, Wilde with his knee breeches and sunflower was a bit silly. At best, Davis did not care much for worldly people, not did he fancy people for their fame.

In the Mobile Register of June 23 Davis read an announcement that had undoubtedly been inspired by Wilde’s manager. “We understand that ex-President Davis has invited Mr. Wilde to pay him a visit at Beauvoir, his Mississippi home; and that the aesthete has accepted … It is scarcely conceivable that two persons can be more different than the ex-President of the Confederacy and the “Apostle of Aestheticism,” as known to report; and we confess sufficient curiosity to desire to know the bent of their coming, protracted interview.”

Wilde was reported by the New Orleans Picayune to have “very sensible views about the Southern Confederacy.” In an interview he spoke of his great admiration for the ex-President. He had never spoken to the Chief, he said, but had followed his career with much attention. “His fall after such an able and gallant pleading in his own cause, must necessarily arouse sympathy.” The cause of the South in the late war Wilde compared to that of contemporary Ireland. “It was a struggle for autonomy, self-government, for a people. I do not wish to see the Empire dismembered, but only to see the Irish people free. People must have freedom and autonomy before they are capable of their greatest result in the cause of progress. I look forward to meeting Mr. Jefferson Davis.”

But it is doubtful if Wilde got as much pleasure as he expected in the meeting, which took place on June 27. Though Mrs. Davis and Winnie and a visiting cousin, Mary Davis, found Wilde enchanting as a conversationalist, Mr. Davis felt something indefinablly objectionable in his personality. Even at twenty-six (Davis had turned seventy-four on June 3), Wilde’s thick, sensual lips gave him a slightly gross look. At dinner Davis let his wife and Wilde carry on most of the conversation; he remained courteous, but aloof. Pleading doctor’s orders for some temporary indisposition, Davis excused himself early. Wilde had felt restrained in the presence of this sincere man. By simply being himself, Davis had held up to Wilde a mirror which reflected an image that was not flattering.

After his host had retired, Wilde brightened perceptibly and charmed the three ladies beyond words. Mrs. Davis made a very good pencil sketch of the poet while he chatted. And he presented her with a copy of a recently published English edition of his poems and inscribed it glowingly. The four talked until after midnight. When Mary Davis, who was to grow into a proper spinster, had undressed for bed, she went to the window and stared out enraptured. There on the beach in the moonlight she beheld the tall figure of Oscar Wilde sauntering up and down the sand with a handful of pebbles, which he moodily tossed, one by one, into the shallow waves. (Mary Davis, though terribly shocked over Wilde’s subsequent tragedy, admitted later that she was “never mentally free of the man’s charm.”)

Wilde had charmed most of America, but not his American hero. After the Britisher had departed the next day, Mrs. Davis chided her husband for not being more cordial to their celebrated guest. He only said quietly, “I did not like the man,” and would give no reason. When he went out to his pavilion office, Davis found propped up on his desk a 12×10 photograph of the lecturer-poet. It was inscribed “To Jefferson Davis in all loyal admiration from Oscar Wilde, June—’82—Beauvoir.”

In a letter written on July 6, 1882 to Julia Ward Howe (American author and reformer (1819-1910, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), Wilde wrote:

“I write to you from the beautiful, passionate, ruined South, the land of magnolias and music, of roses and romance: picturesque too in her failure to keep pace with your keen northern pushing intellect; living chiefly on credit, and in the memory of some crushing defeats. And I have been to Texas, right to the heart of it, and stayed with Jeff Davis at his plantation (how fascinating all failures are!) [my italics: jly] and seen Savannah, and the Georgia forests, and bathed in the Gulf, and engaged in Voodoo rites with the Negroes, and am dreadfully tired and longing for an idle day …”

Barry

I can’t claim to have known Barry Hannah well, but we knew each other. I took Barry’s first class at Ole Miss as an undergraduate. The class was held in Bondurant East, second floor, overlooking the Williams Library. Donna Tartt was in the class as well, a very pretty young lady who turned in a wonderful short story about a woman held captive by a man whose passion was orchids. I turned in one about a woman who had murdered her husband in front of her youngest child, a brutal little story that Hannah found “too much”, since the child later went on to commit suicide as an adult. “Murder and suicide both in less than five pages?” he asked. He looked at me, shrugged and grinned.

Barry was drinking heavily at that time, and it wasn’t a week later before he showed up just as drunk as he could be. The entire class just sat in their seats, dumbfounded, as he rambled on about poetry, fiction and flying around the Gulf of Mexico shooting tequila with Jimmy Buffet. We were dismissed early. My friend and classmate Robert Yarborough told me to stay after class and help him get Hannah home. I drove Barry’s car, Robert followed on his motorcycle. First stop was to a supermarket, where Barry gave me a wad of money and told me to buy a steak (“I need protein!”), then to the run-down duplex he shared with Robert on Johnson Avenue. At the next class we were on pins and needles wondering if Hannah would show up, but of course he did, apologized, told us to forget about it and delivered one of the best lectures on the craft of writing I’ve ever heard before or since. “You’ve got to write, write, write” he said. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” Trite, I know, but when Barry said it with that raffish grin of his, he made it stick.

Later on that semester, I was sitting in the Gin having a few beers and scribbling on a pad when Hannah walked in. I nodded a greeting, and eventually he ambled over and we started talking. He asked about the short story I’d written. I told him I’d gotten the title (“A Roof of Wind”) from Faulkner. This infuriated him; I got the impression that he was sick and tired having his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited roared down. Not knowing what else to do, I apologized and left posthaste. He never brought it up again, and I certainly didn’t.

Like Morris, Hannah was subject to the fawnings of fans, but while Willie reveled in holding late-night, dissolute salons where he was the center of the attentions of a cadre of hangers-on, Barry kept a somewhat lower profile and a more select company. I knew many people who traveled in those circles, and they enjoyed regaling those of us who weren’t members of those cliques relishing their wit and wisdom.

On reflection, it wasn’t a good time for either Morris or Hannah. Neither published anything of matter those years; Barry began bottoming out with Ray, while Willie was churning out even worse froth in the form of Terrains of the Heart. But unlike Morris, Hannah pulled out of it, wrote, and wrote well. He had to, and he did.

Hannah is the finest Southern writer of his generation, eye, ear and voice. Oh, he was a bad boy to be sure; he had the witting arrogance to be vulgar when the situation presented itself and his snide insinuations peppered anything he wrote. Begrudge his digressions, but Hannah was a lyricist; he taught us to listen to ourselves.

Spanish Eggplant

Peel two large eggplants and cut into thick dice. Brush these liberally with olive oil and grill or broil until slightly blistered and soft. Sauté a small yellow onion with a mild thin-walled pepper such as a sweet banana or poblano—you want about a cup of each, coarsely chopped—with chopped garlic, two cloves, and diced zucchini or yellow squash. Add eggplant, two cups diced tomatoes, and a large, chopped roasted red pepper. Salt to taste then season with freshly-dried basil, dried thyme, and crushed red pepper. Bake at about 300 until bubbling. Cool and serve with flat bread.