How to Cook a Possum

People who are paid to postulate upon such matters have theorized that the reason we don’t have herds of brontosauri stomping around in our bayous is due not just to the Alvarez event, but also to egg-eating possums. You’d think we’d be grateful for this service to our fellow mammals, but as in the case of the dove (which brought Noah the most significant tidal measurements in the history of mankind) possum has been served without apology at meals throughout the South since mankind came along.

Southern culinary icons tend to be traditional and domestic, the comforting products of home gardens and kitchens. Those game dishes brought in from the woods and fields have in recent years come to play a strikingly diminished role on our tables because fewer people are hunting these days, particularly for sustenance, and while most if not all of you might consider having possum on the table a revolting prospect at best, the simple fact of the matter remains that possums have long been esteemed for their porcine flavor. One early recommendation comes from John Boynton, a New Englander who came to Mississippi (near Vicksburg) to teach in 1836. Boynton was amazed at the “Old Southwest”, writing to his father, “It would take more than 19 letters to tell you the half of what I’ve seen in one week.” He hunted turkey and deer as well as an exotic animal: “(o)possums by the scores. Had one for dinner today—first rate.”

Faulkner included possum on the Thanksgiving table of the Sartoris family in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, influential and aristocratic Sartoris family contending with decline, but still clinging to the vestiges of affluence. Here’s Faulkner’s description of the meal:

. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries.

By far, the most solid recommendation for possum comes from Bill Neal, who is widely considered by many to be the dean of Southern cooking, the man who played a key role in raising Southern foods to national prominence and continues to influence new generations of Southern culinarians. In his authoritative Southern Cooking, Neal begins his entry on possum by stating, “All southerners—black, white, or native—who know game relish possum roasted with sweet potatoes. The two components are inseparable; the dish is practically a cultural symbol of regional pride in the piedmont and mountain areas.” He continues with a recipe from Horace Kephart’s Camp Cookery (1910) that beings: “To call our possum an opossum, outside of a scientific treatise, is an affectation. Possum is his name wherever he is known and hunted, this country over. He is not good until you have freezing weather; nor is he to be served without sweet potatoes, except in desperate extremity.” (The possum season in Mississippi is from October to February.)

The recipe reproduced here comes from another authority, Erma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (13th edition, 1975). Note that the recipe recommends “feeding it out” (i.e. capturing the animal before slaughter and feeding it with bland foods not just to provide the meat with a less gamey flavor but purging the possum, which is a notorious scavenger), and while a good Southerner will always serve possum with sweet potatoes, the Rombauers were from St. Louis, which is marginally Southern and urban, so turnip greens were probably suggested since they are, like possum, an iconic Southern dish.

Farish: A Dead End Street

After over thirty years and $25 million, the prospect of transforming Farish Street into an urban oasis of bright lights, great food and memorable music has lost its luster.

In January 1980, a month before Farish Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the city of Jackson launched plans to revive the area by making a contract with the National Business League for a $200,000 revitalization study. The contract as well as the cost of its extension a year later (an additional $34,000), was paid out of a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The result of this study was the city’s ambitious 1984 Farish Street Revitalization Plan, which proposed to restore commercial and cultural activity in the district by enforcing codes, upgrading the infrastructure, improving housing and constructing a park between Farish and Mill streets. These improvements were to take place over a five-year period, but by 1989, the effort had failed; businesses had not moved into the area, crime was rampant and what housing existed was substandard.

But the revitalization of Farish Street retained its glamour, and in 1999, by far the largest infusion of money came from the State of Mississippi and Fannie Mae, $6 million from each. This money went to upgrade the infrastructure of the historic district, which began in 2002, the same year the city signed a contract with Performa Real Estate to develop the area at an estimated cost of $20 million. Six years later, Performa left the city after a bitter imbroglio with Mayor Frank Melton.

*(Community Development Block Grant – HUD)
(Not included in this document are amounts for donations of real estate (e.g.: from state of Mississippi; donation of Alamo from Sunburst Bank), funding for the Smith-Robertson Museum and contract fees paid to Performa Entertainment and subsequent developers, among other costs.)
1) Hester, Lea Ann. “City expected to extend study of Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger 19 October 1981: 1B. Print.
2) Ibid.
3) Hester, Lea Ann. “Farish: Older than thought?” The Clarion-Ledger 23 July 1801: 1B. Print.
4) Scruggs, Afi-Odelia E. “Development plan fails to revitalize Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger 10 December 1989: 1A. Print.
5) Ibid.
6) Simmons, Grace. “Farish Street consultants to share info.” The Clarion-Ledger 9 October 1993: (no page cited)
7) Gates, Jimmie. “Renovation closer for Farish Street’s Alamo Theatre.” The Clarion-Ledger 22 November 1995: (no page cited)
8) Harris, Barbara. The Jackson Advocate. “Farish Street Historic District gets infusion of national, state funding.” 7 March 1996: 1A. Print.
9) Ibid.
10) Fleming, Eric. “Farish Street renovation under way.” The Mississippi Link. 26 March 1998. 1A: Print.
11) Henderson, Monique H. “Draft document targets Farish St. Historic District:12M allotted for development of district.” The Clarion-Ledger. 27 April 1999. 1B Print.
12) Ibid.
13) Mayer, Greg. “$1.5M grant going to Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger. 22 March 2001. 1B: Print.
14) Ibid.
15) _______. “Black museum receives grant.” The Picayune Item. 12 January 2000. (no page cited)
16) Mitchell, Jerry. “$2M-plus in grants awarded to state civil rights sites.” (“$210,000 will help stabilize the foundation and repair the Medgar Evers House Museum in Jackson.”) The Clarion-Ledger. 3 August 2011. (no page cited)

Prospective investors have been discouraged by the unaccountability of financed development in the area, particularly by the Farish Street Historic District Neighborhood Foundation, the steering organization for the revitalization project, which was founded in 1980, moved to the Office of City Planning in 1995 and disappeared (along with its documentation) in 2006. The ensuing decade brought diminishing appeals for Farish revitalization, and the current mayor, Tony Yarber, faced with a city-wide breakdown of essential infrastructure, stated in 2015 that the project was “on the back burner”.

Once considered the keystone project towards the revitalization of decaying downtown Jackson, Farish Street has instead become a byword for boondoggle and corruption as well as a forlorn Potemkin village in the heart of the city.

Faulkner’s Marble Faun

According to Fred Smith, appraiser for Mississippi State University’s archives and former proprietor of Choctaw Books in Jackson, “When it comes to the ‘Holy Grail’ of Mississippi book collecting, Faulkner’s The Marble Faun is it.”

“For one thing, he’s the most important literary figure this state has ever produced, and this book of poems is his first work,” Smith explained. “Faulkner thought he wanted to be a poet, and Phil Stone had it printed or helped him to get it printed. Stone bought many of the unsold copies and stored them in the attic at his home in Oxford, but they were destroyed when the house burned. I’ve only had one copy in my 31 years in business, and it wasn’t in good shape; the spine was really fragile, and the binding had come off. Whatever the print run was, and I’m sure it wasn’t big, a lot of the original copies didn’t survive.”

“Signed copies are worth tens of thousands of dollars,” Smith said. “The absolute best copy came up for sale at Christie’s, a copy he had inscribed to his mother and father. Ole Miss has a couple of copies, and someone donated one to Mississippi College a few years ago. But that book is one thing that I’ve kept searching for all these years. I did buy one from a lady in Oxford some twenty years ago, but because of its poor condition it wasn’t worth a lot then. I think I sold it for $750, but if I had one to resell now, it would bring ten times that much, probably up to ten thousand, because there just aren’t any around.”

The Christie’s first edition of Faulkner’s The Marble Faun (Four Seas Press: Boston, 1924) sold for $95,600 in October, 2002. In the lot description, Christie’s adds:

“Four Seas agreed to issue Faulkner’s collection of poems in 1923, provided he pay for the manufacturing costs (their standard arrangement). They offered him a royalty arrangement, but Faulkner declined to proceed, at the time not having enough money to carry the costs. Within six months, though, he’d received the encouragement and financial support of Phil Stone and the twenty-seven year old Faulkner contracted for the printing of 500 copies of The Marble Faun. The book sold poorly and quickly was remaindered. No records survive detailing the number of copies Four Seas actually sold prior to disposing the stock on the remainder market, but an early estimate suggested 100 copies. William Boozer, in William Faulkner’s First Book: The Marble Faun (Memphis, 1975), specifically located 56 copies. Boozer considered the existence of other floating copies for a total of near 70, and has since found more, but his total is still short of the 100 copies initially assumed.”

The Grounds and the Fury

Dinners on the grounds were once held on rickety tables between the church and cemetery, when words of loss and remonstrance faded, and food offered redemption and reward.

Though ostensibly polite pastoral get-togethers, dinners on the grounds were more often platforms for social clambering of the pettiest and most vicious sort. Despite the communal reason for the food, there was always an underlying competitive element to the affair. Food Network competitions pale in comparison to those rural stages of venomous culinary put-downs; knocking a recent wok wonder off prime time seems trivial when you’re dealing with decades of spite. Every square foot of splintered table space was contested and every element of a good “spread” subjected to off-stage critique. Transgressors were damned for such cardinal sins as using Jell-O pudding mix instead of homemade custard, and if you brought fried chicken in that red-and-white cardboard bucket, you would not get any sympathy when your high heels got stuck in an ant bed.

The queens of these community catfights took inordinate pride in lording over the lesser. My distant Cousin Dora’s angel food cake was a marvel to see. She displayed it on her grandmother’s cut-glass (not crystal; her crystal did not travel) cake stand beside a bowl of macerated strawberries and sweetened cream that she had her husband Harvey whip on site after he had driven 50 miles wearing a tie the whole way. The cake, flanked by a vase with a fistful of her show-quality roses and fortified by something along the lines of a fudge divinity she just “threw together at the last minute”, was displayed on a creaseless, delicately-patterned white cloth. Dora sliced it with a wooden-handled sponge cake cutter and served it on Classic White Chinet. Everyone hated her airs, but took malicious comfort in knowing that Harvey had been slipping around with the choir director for at least fifteen years. Rumor had it that her sister-in-law, tired of her high-and-mightiness, snuck into her house one day while the cake was in the oven and slammed the door so it would fall. That, they said with a knowing look, was the year Dora broke a toe before the church homecoming.

Adversity is a dynamic portal for new ideas, especially when it comes to recipes, and if it were a big occasion, the range of variations in a single dish was astounding. Staples such as fried chicken, baked beans and potato salad always proliferated, and those cooks who specialized in these dishes had their adherents and detractors, usually in equal numbers. You had those who preferred double-dipped or battered fried chicken and those who liked a much lighter crust. The dividing line with baked beans involved the use of brown sugar or molasses and with potato salad, creamed or chunky.

I attended these gatherings with my grandmother Monette, who was not a cook herself (history and genealogy were her interests: according to her I was related to everyone between New Albany and Grenada). Monette stayed out of the fray, but she was a discriminating eater who from past experience knew the tables well.  “Be sure and get one of Alice Edmond’s fried pies,” she’d say, or, “Jane Early has that 8-layer caramel cake recipe from her mother Eugenia, a Hardin, my first cousin Dudley’s second cousin on his mother’s side, before she married Jane’s father, who gambled away the family farm in a lop-sided mule race. He had a glass eye that he used to take out and put in his iced tea when their preacher came over.”

Nowadays, store-bought collapsible tables have replaced the long lines of sagging and splintered pine boards beneath the blackjack oaks and sweet gums, but anyone who brings Stouffer’s to a church social in Mississippi is going to get talked about. And not in a good way.

A church dinner on the grounds, Calhoun County c. 1965

Old Airmount

The following excerpt comes from Elmo Howell’s wonderful Mississippi Back Roads (Langford: 1998). This beautiful old building deserved a far better fate.

In the beginning, all Baptists were Primitive Baptists. Following the Reformation, the Anabaptists, along with Calvinists, Waldensians, Mennonites and other radical groups, departed from Church and State to live a holy life according to the Gospels. Today most Baptists in the South belong to the giant Southern Baptist Convention, but the small scattered congregations in the hill country who still have no Sunday School, no foreign missions, no paid clergy, and who still wash each other’s feet in solemn ceremony—in keeping with Christ’s example and an ancient Maundy Thursday rite—are the true descendants of the original Baptists. They are the Primitives, the Hardshells.

Baptist worship began in Mississippi in the 1780’s when Elder Richard Curtis came out from South Carolina and settled with a small flock on Cole’s Creek above Natchez. Spain ruled the country, Roman Catholicism was the state church, but for awhile all went well with Protestants in private worship. Then word got out that Curtis was performing marriage ceremonies, taking in converts, and even talking about building a church. In a government crackdown, five or more persons found together in a religious capacity were subject to arrest. He ignored the warning—but escaped, it is said, through the offices of a half-Indian convert, Aunt Chloe Holt, who roused him in the night with a horse and saddle and provisions for his journey. At the end of Spanish rule, Curtis returned to Mississippi and spent the rest of his life with the Baptists in Adams County.

In the half century following this rude beginning in Mississippi, a great revolution swept over Baptists everywhere, the “Fuller Heresy,” as the Primitives called it, or the advent of the “missionaries” with their charge to evangelize the world. Baptists began with a stern predestinarianism, which among “Southern Baptists,” organized in the 1840’s, gave way to prevalence of grace and open communion. The old remnant held on to “total depravity” and man’s incapacity to restore himself to favor with God. They rejoiced in Election, God’s choosing “whom He would,” and left it to the mystery of love that some are saved, some lost. “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you.” This heady doctrine provoked an extraordinary reaction in both life and literature in England in the 17th century. “O Eternity! Eternity!” cries John Bunyan’s Man in the Iron Cage. “How shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in Eternity!” Men lived on the edge, some went mad—while others lived gloriously and preached like Bunyan. The Primitive Baptists today are a fragmented part of this experience.

Loosascoona Primitive Baptist Church at old Airmount east of Coffeeville is a remarkable survivor, in both church organization (still with regular services) and in an old building perhaps a century and a half old. No one knows when it was built. In 1839, the Yalobusha Baptist Association in central Mississippi split in two in the controversy between old and new. Five churches broke away to form the Loosascoona Primitive Baptist Association. “I am not of you,” one elder spoke out at the meeting, “and that it may be manifest that I am not of you, I now go out of you.” And so it was in Yalobusha County, as throughout the state, that the old Baptists withdrew to their hills and hollows, a small but sturdy remnant to carry on in their own way.

The church organization at Airmount lasted for a century, but with membership down to only four families in 1938, services were discontinued. The doors were closed, the house was given a new tin roof, left to itself and forgotten. Undergrowth moved into the clearing. Then in 1965, one surviving member had a dream—he dreamt of going to church again in the woods with his father. Under the leadership of William Tyler “Dub” Wortham and Guy Shaw of Coffeeville, Loosasaoona was brought back to life. The Murphree family, old settlers of the county, joined in. (David Murphree who died in 1838—Yalobusha County’s only Revolutionary War soldier and grandfather of Dennis Murphree, Governor of Mississippi in 1927—is buried beside the church.) Thanks to the tin roof, the old structure was still sound. The road was cleared, a tree removed from the church door, and a pastor called. Today Loosascoona has a regular service on first Sunday afternoons and an annual homecoming and Old Harp singing on the fourth Sunday in September.

The Primitives, overlooked in the bustle of “new Baptist”. brothers, are an instance of survival and retention of character through centuries of change. In simplicity of life and in the old songs and sparse dignity of ritual, they approach the Mediaeval and mystical. “Godliness is a matter that cannot be understood by the carnal mind,” says church historian Benjamin Griffin of Holmes County. “It is a mystery, a great mystery-impossible to communicate except to those whose hearts have been circumcised, ears unstopt, and eyes opened by the power of the living God.” John Bunyan, a 17th century Baptist, conceived of man’s life as a pilgrimage. “I have loved to hear my Lord spoken of,” says Mr. Standfast at the end of his journey, “and wherever I have seen the print of his shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot too.”

Sweet Pepper Poppers

Stem, seed, and devein small sweet peppers. Season inside with salt, pepper, paprika, and granulated garlic. Stuff with slices of smoked Swiss or Gouda cheese wrapped in thinly-sliced ham or turkey. Arrange the peppers in lightly oiled muffin tins, and place in a very hot oven until cheese is melted through, about 15 mins.. Serve hot as a nosh or as a side with hefty pasta such as lasagna or cannoli.

Tio Jesé’s Pickled Avocado

Use firm avocados. Peel and slice as you like, then soak in a bath of cold salted water and lime juice for about an hour. This step draws some of the oil from the avocado, making it more receptive to the pickling liquid (makes them prettier, too). Drain, dust generously with salt and red pepper flakes, and pack into jars. Fill jars with white vinegar, then pour vinegar from jars into a saucepan. For each pint of liquid, add the juice of half a lime, a teaspoon each of whole black peppers, yellow mustard seeds, and diced cilantro.

Priapian Hymn #57

Cupped, cradled, ADORED—everything in one stride.
There, where you crease your form, a presence
Coiled, cuffed, MOORED—something of space, a pride
Of lions, three in hand–the rope, eternity, ESSENCE.

How once I BURNED to find, to feel, to hold,
To KNOW carnality—rampant, quaking lust—
But what where who ? No boldness
Came to free, to see the fire was JUST.

Now throbbing in my THROAT I thrust in need
My tongue, my teasing teeth seek musky cream.
PRIAPUS MAGNUS! Bloat my mouth with satyr’s seed,
Foam my beard, a faun with me to dream.

So now the What the Who the WHY have fled,
Make MY tongue the temple for your head.

Shrimp with Spinach Pesto

Cook the shrimp separately from the sauce and pasta; this offers an opportunity to give the shrimp a more distinct–in my case, more piquant–flavor to offset the olive and basil. Spinach gives the sauce heft and balance. Rotini carries it well; risotto is nice, too.