This text and recipe is from Howard Mitcham’s magical Creole, Gumbo, and All That Jazz.
After gumbo, the most famous Creole-Cajun dish is jambalaya. The word is probably derived from “Jambon,” which means am in both Spanish and French. The “a la ya” is probably an African expletive which can be interpreted as either acclaim or derision. Jambalaya was a well-known dish even before Hank Williams’s Hit Parade song came along and made it nationally famous. Millions have sung the song without knowing anything about what the dish was like. The recipes herewith will give you a chance to really get on the bandwagon. Jambalaya started out as a poor man’s catch-all, utilizing any leftover meats, sausages, shrimp, or fish that might be lying around, and stretching them a long, long way with plenty of rice. If a poor Cajun family had five or six kids, it’s a safe bet they ate jambalaya several times a week. Like red beans and rice, it kept people from starving during depressions and recessions.
But the consummate artistry of Creole and Cajun cooks has lifted jambalaya above its humble beginnings to a higher plateau, and it is now served with pride and joy in the mansions of the wealthy and in high-toned restaurants. This dish is a close cousin of the Spanish paella, and it probably originated down around New Iberia, which, as its name suggests, was originally a Spanish settlement. However, there’s another town with a Spanish name, Gonzales, up near Baton Rouge, that calls itself the Jambalaya Capital of the World. Its citizens hold a jambalaya festival every year. They cook big black iron wash pots full of the stuff, and people come from all over to sample the rich and redolent fare. A real Gonzales jambalaya is so peppery hot, spicy, and rich that the uninitiated can barely cope with it, but an aficionado of the art can consume a half gallon of it and ask for more. The version of Creole Jambalaya here is lighter fare than the Gonzales product.
Melt a half stick butter in a thick-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, cook 1 pound andouille or smoked sausage (or both) until lightly browned. Stir in a heaping quarter cup of plain flour, add 3 medium white onions, chopped finely, 4 minced cloves of garlic, 6 whole scallions, chopped. Cook until onions soft and clear. Add a 16 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained, along with a bay leaf, and a teaspoon each thyme, cayenne, cumin, and black pepper. Add 4 cups broth (chicken or beef), a cup of cooked chicken, and a cup of diced ham. The liquid should cover the ingredients. Bring to a rolling boil and stir in 2 cups raw rice (let me recommend Zatarain’s long grain, jly). Cover, boil for about 5 minutes, then reduce heat and cook until rice is done. Remove lid to cook off excess liquid; “a jambalaya should be moist, but not soupy.” Salt to taste.
Making quick breads is such a basic culinary skill that at one time those persistent legions of people who spend their time minding other people’s business sniffed their disapproval of a newly-wed husband’s bride by saying, “He married a woman who can’t even make biscuits.”
This specific example of cattiness carries with it a tacit understanding that mister didn’t marry his missus because she was a domestic diva, but for prurient reasons which were grounds for disapproval among matrons who could cook up a storm yet were inept or unwilling in arts which keep a man from taking up what was then referred to as “light housekeeping” with another woman.
Those were more genteel times. Nowadays, of course, those same people would just say he hooked up with a slut and be done with it, but there’s something to be said for polite prevarication: What it lacks in forthrightness is more than made up for in vicious subtlety.
Believe it or not, being able to cook was once a commodity on the marriage market, so much so that disgruntled husbands who settled for less than a buxom bimbo comforted themselves and others like them (honest, hardworking men, every one of them) by claiming that the cooking lasted longer than the loving. And while that might be true, there’s still something to be said for marrying a total tramp-in-training; after all, that’s what mothers-in-law are for.
Like many short bread recipes, the one for biscuits is more technique than ingredients. Getting the biscuits to rise well is key, and if you don’t follow a reasonable procedure, you’re going to end up throwing away a pan of hockey pucks. Biscuits shouldn’t be worked a lot; excess kneading makes the dough so dense that it won’t rise. Biscuits should also be cut out quickly while the dough is cool, and with a clean, sharp edge that will not pinch. Crowding the biscuits a bit also helps them to rise, but if you get them too close together the centers won’t bake through. Also make sure the oven is hot (450/475) before you put them on a rack in the upper third of the oven.
So, for all you floozies out there who need a bonus the morning after, here’s how to make biscuits. And if you don’t carry a skillet with you, well, you’re on your own.
Take two cups of self-rising flour and sift in dry a scant teaspoon of baking soda. Work thoroughly into this about 1/3 a cup of cold vegetable shortening. Mix with the fingers until it has an almost granular texture. Working quickly, stir in enough cold buttermilk (about a cup) to make a sticky dough. Throw dough on a generously-floured surface, sprinkle with a scant more flour and roll out very thick, almost half an inch, and cut into biscuits. Again, work quickly so that the dough stays cool(ish). Place biscuits just touching in a lightly greased skillet and pop them on the top rack of a hot oven for about a quarter an hour. You want them golden-brown and fragrant; brush lightly with butter while still hot and serve immediately.
Two decades after Appomattox the prostrate South was—and comparatively still is—largely undeveloped in regards to the rest of the nation, which was undergoing a “Gilded Age”.
For Jackson, Mississippi the war was catastrophic, but the city had begun to rebuild and piece itself together slowly along its two main two axes, Capitol and State Streets. The Pearl River provided then as it does now a natural barrier to expansion to the east, so that the city grew west along Capitol behind the bluff and north along State following the bluff. The southwesterly course of the floodplain largely prevented significant development on South State Street beyond its parallel to the divergence of the Illinois Central and Gulf & Ship Island Railroads, yet inevitably attempts were made, paramount among them the hamlet that became known as Duttoville.
Located south of Porter and on either side of Gallatin adjacent to the Illinois Central Railroad, Duttoville was named for Father Louis Anthony (Luigi Antonio) Dutto, one of the most fascinating figures in the ecclesiastical history of Mississippi. Dutto was born in the commune of Boves in Italy’s Piedmont region and educated at Brignole-Sale, a pontifical college in Genoa. A very learned man, Dutto was the author of The Life of Bartolome de las Cassas (published posthumously; 1902). He was ordained for the Diocese of Natchez before he was 24 years old and arrived in Jackson on August 25, 1875 to assist Fr. Picherit in attending the surrounding missions. Dutto succeeded Picherit as pastor in 1885.
According to an anecdotal biography written in 1932 by Rev. P.H. Keenen, a personal friend, “Father Dutto was a great financier, having special aptitude in this line. He was sought as adviser in matters financial by young businessmen, and his advice, when followed, usually brought success, and often wealth. . . . He himself acquired much property. On the missions he seldom asked his people for funds—he gave instead of asking. His business acumen enabled him to do this.”
In 1886, Fr. Dutto bought land in what was then the southwestern portion of the city, which, according to the account given by McCain in The Story of Jackson, “he divided into lots on which homes were erected and gardens cultivated by certain Catholics who had to come to the city to engage in commercial and agricultural pursuits. This section is still known as Duttoville.”
By another account (Jackson Daily News, May 30, 1979 p. 15A) Dutto acquired the property in 1891 from F.A. and Mary F. Wolfe, J.W. Langley all along Gallatin Street and the I.C.R.R. and the G.&S.I. Railroad and the “Muh (pronounced as the pronoun “me”) Estate, “vast acres” of land just outside the city limits, Dutto sold lots to working class people who could not pay taxes on simple homes, including many Italian immigrants (likely the “certain Catholics” referenced above). The area soon became a thriving community with a planing mill, brickyard and other enterprises that provided work for residents, and many worked in Jackson proper. Anticipating being acquired by Jackson at an early date, the settlers, to avoid city taxes, incorporated in 1903.
The original Duttoville was bounded on the north by Town Creek, the east by the Pearl River with the Illinois Central and Gulf & Ship Island railroads to the west. Later the village expanded west of he railroad tracks to Terry Road. The first (and only) mayor was J.R. Root; aldermen were W.L. Porter, Joe Karese and Will Muh; J.E. Robinson was town marshal, and J.W Langley was city clerk. We’re told a small jail was built but “never occupied”.
When Jackson first attempted to incorporate Duttoville, the tiny village put up a fight. The Duttovillers went to court and fought the incorporation and won. The city of Jackson appealed, and after two years, while the case was still pending in court, the citizens of Duttoville and Mayor Hemmingway of Jackson made a compromise.
The city agreed to extend water, lights, telephone, a fire station, police protection, a grammar school (George School) and other amenities. But the area continued to be called by its original name, which in time became corrupted into “Doodleville” or “Dooleyville” both used well into the mid-20th century as a popular though derisive term for the part of town bordered by Battlefield Park on the south, Terry Road on the West, Hooker Street on the north and South Gallatin on the East, well west of the original settlement.
Belhaven resident Wilfred Cunningham, who grew up on Farish Street, remembers going to Doodleville as a very young man. “This was in the late Forties, and I was in my early teens. Anything south of Capitol Street on Farish Street we considered Doodleville,”
“The area was much more depressed than North Farish. I seem to remember the roads weren’t paved, the streets were graveled, I thought we lived poorly on Farish, but Dooley was a lot more run down.” Cunningham said. “The houses were row houses, shotgun houses like we had on Farish. People from Doodleville would come to Farish where we had the ice cream parlors, the stores, the clubs, and the Alamo. There wasn’t any industry of any kind there for jobs, so most of the people worked in north Jackson. For some reason I was always told not to let the sun go down on me there. I never ran into such a problem, but I always got the impression that there was a gang of some kind that kept Doodleville for people who lived here and weren’t friendly to outsiders.”
Jackson bluesmen Cary Lee Simmons and Bubba Brown composed the “Doodleville Blues” in the 1930s, and it was a local hit, getting lots of laughs when Simmons performed it for his friends in Jackson. He made a recording in 1967, which you can listen to here.
I got a girl in the Bamas, I got on that lived out on Bailey Hill. I got a girl in the Bamas, and I got one that lived out on Bailey Hill. But don’t none of them suit me like that one I got down in Doodleville
The womens on Farish Street shakes until they can’t be still. I said, the womens on Farish Street shakes until they can’t be still. But they cannot sake like those gals Live down here in Doodleville
Turn your lamp down low. Somebody done shot poor Bud, Buddy Will. Turn your lamp down low. Somebody done shot Buddy Will. I told him to stay off Mill Street and get him a gal in Doodleville.
I won’t have a gal on Farish Street, Wouldn’t speak to one that lived on Mill. I won’t have a gal on Farish Street, Wouldn’t speak to one that lived on Mill. ‘Cause the next woman I got, she got to live in Doodleville.
They got the meat from the slaughterhouse And the wood from Grimm Stage Mill. They got the meat from the slaughterhouse And the wood from Grimm Stage Mill. And if you want to live easy, get you a girl in Doodleville.
Spoken: I got a secret for you though. It’s a mad dog out, and boys, it ain’t been killed. It’s a mad dog out, and boys, it ain’t been killed. And you better be careful, careful, careful how you doodle in Doodleville.
Even studded with jewels such as the old fire station and the magnificent Art Deco George School, Duttoville languishes in slow decay, but it’s the most fascinating neighborhood in the city of Jackson, the sad shadow of a good man’s dream.
When the courthouse clock struck the first toll of the noon hour, the complexion of the village changed. Shopkeepers and clerks hurried their over-the-counter trade so as not to be late for mealtime; little old ladies in their shawls and bonnets scurried home along side streets to their salads and tea-cakes; doctors and lawyers put aside the healing of the sick and matters at the bar to congregate in the public inn for a plate of the noon-day fare; farmers found a shadier side of the square and rested under tall oak trees while they took their dinner of canned meat and yellow wedges of cheese. It was a time for idle chit-chat, political forum, witty repartee, and peaceful rumination with a temperance and protocol like no other time of day.
–L.W. Thomas Written for the menu of The Warehouse Restaurant, 1984
This dish was one of our more popular choices at the Downtown Grill in Oxford. Though a Creole mustard is used here, the recipe works well with brown, stone-ground, or even a Dijon.
Oil and line a skillet or sheet pan with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 400. Stir together 1 cup finely chopped pecans with about a quarter cup finely-crushed saltines; you can use Panko instead, but for some reason I never seem to have any Panko.
Mix ¼ cup mustard with 1 large egg and ¼ cup water. Beat very well. Dredge the fish through the mustard mixture and coat the tops of the fillets in pecans. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, depending upon the size of the fillet.
In 1967, Louisiana’s Pelican Press acquired the rights to Lafcadio Hearne’s classic work on New Orleans cookery, La Cuisine Creole, first published by Will Coleman in Cincinnati in 1885. The new edition featured the addition of a collection of drawings and other writings by Hearne during his sojourn in New Orleans from 1877 to 1887 as well as a forward by Louisiana native Hodding Carter, publisher of the Greenville (Mississippi) Delta Democrat-Times, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1946.
His name was Lafcadio Hearn. He was bulbous eyed and myopic to the point of blindness and all his life he knew a waif’s sense of insecurity and often the hunger that is frequently a waif’s lot.
Of all places on this earth of his loneliness he loved New Orleans most, and there is irony in his creation of this classic, which has to do with the food and drink and some of the foibles of his beloved adopted city, for it can be said that it was written by a hungry man out of hunger, a physical hunger that seldom was far away.
He was at home with the Creole city’s food from the day he stepped off the Thompson Dean as she landed at New Orleans in November 1877 but frequently he could afford barely enough of such food to keep himself alive.
He found his way to the boarding house of Mary Bustillos, 228 Baronne Street and paid over to her his small amount of cash for several weeks room and board. For several months he wandered in the New Orleans streets, often near starving, as the Cincinnati Commercial did not pay him for his articles on New Orleans.
Eventually he found work with the Democrat and made the acquaintance of Major William M. Robinson, editor of the New Orleans Republican. He was welcomed in the Robinsons’ home and perhaps here began his acquaintance with better New Orleans American and Creole cooking. He also developed a lasting friendship with Dr. Rudolph Matas and his family. Hearn said Mrs. Matas supplied a good deal of the material for his cookbook.
After his first six lean months, Major Robertson introduced Hearn to Mark Bigney who together with Edwin L. Jewel had started a modest newspaper called the Item. He became a member of their staff-an assistant editor with a salary of $10.00 a week. Hearn’s contributions to the Item were to make him a noted regional literary figure of his day. His descriptions of the New Or- leans scene, his broad literary interest and criticisms and his advanced ideas on psychology and the creative instinct were a sensation in his day. The self- taught little literary figure developed for himself during this period a polished writing style.
In 1879 Hearn learned that the Item was in precarious financial circum- stances. In this extremity he suggested that illustrations on the front page of the Item might increase its circulation. Wandering through the Vieux Carre, he sketched the Negro vendors, tramps, gentlemen and dozens of other habitants. Each day a wooden block cut was fixed at the head of an article. The paper was printed directly from this combination of metal type and wood blocks. All in all, Hearn published about 175 cartoons in two years, 1879 and 1880. Taken as a whole, the columns and pictures present a sensitive illustrated description of life in New Orleans in 1880.
In the meantime, Hearn had moved to the French Quarter where he lived in a number of houses, always seeking cleanliness and comfort. For a while he lived at 105 Bourbon Street (now 516). This almost faced the old French Opera. For a while he lived in a particularly shabby room in the northern end of the French Quarter where by doing his own cooking he could cut down his food expense to $2.00 a week.
He was saving his money for the special purpose of starting a cheap restaurant. He wrote to his friend Henry Watkins in Cincinnatti in June of 1778, saying “Money can be made here out of the poor. The people are so poor nothing pays except that which appeals to poverty-now one can make 30 milk bisquits for 5¢ and 8 cups of coffee for 54.” He horded $100.00 and opened a little restaurant in a sordid back street building at 160 Dryades. Yellow hand bills were printed which read:
“THE 5-CENT RESTAURANT, 160 DRYADES This is the cheapest eating house in the South. It is neat, orderly and respectable as any other in New Orleans. You can get a good meal for a couple of nickels. All dishes 5 cents. Everything half the price of the markets.”
This name did not appeal to him, so he changed to an even stranger one. On the 2nd of March 1879 The Hard Times opened for business and a little advertisement appeared in the Item. In spite of advertising in the Item full of the flavor and quaintness of Hearn’s style, his business hopes collapsed on March the 22nd. His “partner” disappeared with the little cash and the cook, leaving Hearn to shoulder the debts.
His most comfortable period during his New Orleans days came when he began to take his meals at the boarding house 68 Gasquet Street of Mrs. Courtney, a genial Irishwoman. She and her family adopted Hearn, nursed and fed him for a number of years, and his grateful letters reflect his appreciation of their kindness.
In 1881 Hearn went to work for the Times-Democrat under its new editor, Page Baker. Very probably many of the recipes Hearn used in this book came from the Baker family and those of others he visited. He was viewed with mixed feelings because of his strange and exotic tastes in literature. He had an intense interest in the Negro lore in the Creole countries of the world, and his notebooks were full of quaint Negro proverbs in Gombo French. These he arranged and translated first into correct French and then into English.
He persuaded his friend, William H. Coleman who had opened a second- hand book shop in the old Astor Hotel in New York to publish this book of sayings by offering to submit a second book of the Creole recipes he had gathered in the many New Orleans homes in which he visited. He had already said in the columns of the Item that he would like to edit a cookbook. Coleman published these two works-Gombo Zhèbes and La Cuisine Creole -and a third book, the Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans to which Hearn also contributed.
The books were to be on the market by the time of the Cotton Centennial Exposition which opened in 1884 and were to attract a sale among the hordes of tourists expected to attend. But printing delays occurred, and they did not appear until April 1885 and the books sold badly. However, La Cuisine Creole did better than either of the others.
This Pelican edition of La Cuisine Creole is a reproduction of the original by photo offset process, including the original cover-to which we have added, for the first time, the name of the author. We have also added other Hearn material.
The original numbering of the pages persists. We have inserted sketches reproduced from Hearn’s cartoons in the Item, among the first used by a Southern newspaper, some of Hearn’s other work in the Item, and selections from Gombo Zhèbes.
For much of the information used in this sketch of Hearn I am indebted to the pioneer research of Edward Larocque Tinker whose Lafcadio Hearn’s American Days published by Dodd, Mead and Co. in 1924 is the basic Hearn bibliography of that period in his life. Our thanks to the staff of the Lafcadio Hearn Collection of Tulane University for their invaluable assistance.
The raven we have used on the end sheets was the symbol Hearn often used as a rebus in letters to friends.
Sooner or later, you’re bound to do something different and wonderful, and you owe it to yourself to write it down and pass it on.
Do this even though once you’ve got a dish the way you want, you’re likely to find that no one will be able to replicate it to your or even their satisfaction. The secret might very well prove to be your cooking container (especially if it’s seasoned; woks are said to have their own signature) or something as ineffable as your own special touch, which might prove to be nothing more than a particular cooking method you consider unimportant enough not to write down. But at least give other people a base opportunity by listing your ingredients and procedures.
By all means, include information aside from just the basics. For instance, mention if the dish was a favorite of a family member, or if you serve it every year on a particular holiday and garnish the dish with what other components were elemental, especially those involving heirlooms (your Uncle Earl’s china platter, or the centerpiece Millie made out of sewing scraps and pine cones), activities like having a breakfast on the morning presents were opened or memorable incidents (“Earl pulled a gun on Millie when she dropped the platter.”)
Such documentation not only enriches the book itself, but it also provides fodder for short stories, novels or off-Broadway plays.
Let me also encourage you to write recipes by hand. While this exercise might serve as an irritating reminder of how bad your handwriting actually is, it gives the recipe verisimilitude. Handwritten pages also aspire to art when splattered with slopped liquids; it’s so Pollock. You just don’t get that with a laptop. Writing recipes by hand does require some precision, but don’t let getting caught up in the heat of the moment stop you. Later you can find another pen, more red wine or chocolate syrup, and amend the entry.
As to what recipes to include, for once in your life, don’t worry about diversity. Put your best foot forward. If your forte is cakes, casseroles, or seafood, concentrate on those and don’t make any spurious attempt to fill in with recipes you simply copy from another place unless you actually try them out first. Bear in mind that this book should be as personal as you can make it, as reflective as possible of your personality and idiosyncrasies.
By all means, include recipes from friends and relatives as well, since those enrich your work by leaps and bounds, but always identify your contributor and provide details of them as well as a genealogy of the recipe itself. For instance, an entry in my book reveals that a recipe for chicken soup with corn and rivels came from a lady from Lancaster, Pa. who was 6’2”, a psychologist with a unibrow who got the recipe from her Quaker grandmother, the wife of a Lithuanian stockbroker.
Such seemingly irrelevant details make for richer reading than a dry recitation of ingredients and have the potential to approach the limits of art itself.
This piece by acclaimed rogue New Orleans journalist (and Mississippi native) Don Lee Keith came to light a week ago in a folder of notes, letters, and other odds and ends while I was looking for something else.
Reading over it again, I made the decision to republish it on Mississippi Sideboard, since, as I’ve stated before, one of this platform’s functions is to preserve amusing or interesting ephemera. Keith’s piece is both interesting, amusing, and sheds a colorful light on people, a time, and a place.
I’ve long since lost the original copy, have only a vague idea of where I may have found it to begin with, and days of research has turned up nothing about the original publication. I did, however find rough drafts of “Fear and Loathing Beneath the Magnolias” in the Earl K Long Library’s archive with Keith’s other papers. If anyone can provide a citation, I’d be much obliged.
JACKSON, MISS.— A year and a half ago, when the post-Junior League women of this capital city began planning the 14th annual Mississippi Arts Festival, they took a shoot-for-the-stars attitude. They set their sights on the likes of Leontyne Price for opera, Liza Minelli for pops, and they wavered between Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote for their literary choices.
Throughout the months of letter writing and phone calling and contract negotiating, the pickings got slimmer. By last weekend, when the festival curtain opened, the committee had altered its preferences and settled on Joanna Simons instead of Leontyne Price. Robert Goulet cost $12,500, which was more realistic than Liza Minelli’s $65,000, so it was Goulet on the festival stage. But by some peculiar move of fate, both choices for the literary star—Williams and Capote—had agreed to appear. When that word was received, the women went into orgasmic ecstasy. They congratulated each other over sherry and called their friends long distance and bored their husbands, talking about nothing but their achievement. “Just think,” they all said, “Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Together for the first time on one stage. Ours. What a coup!”
What they did not know was that Williams and Capote did not want to be together on any stage at any time, did not want to speak or even see each other, much less appear on the same program. The two men had locked creative horns in the season’s most celebrated battle of egocentric frenzies. Inviting that pair to the same gathering was tantamount to pitching a couple of savage vipers into the same pit.
Truman Capote had been writing something called Answered Prayers for nearly 20 years. At least that’s how long he’s been talking about it, skillfully interjecting mentions of the book into every major interview, persistently reminding the public that his “life’s work” has a title taken from St. Theresa: “More tears are shed over answered prayers then over unanswered ones.”
In the meantime, of course, he has come out with several other books—most notably In Cold Blood, which he touted as a “new art form” –but no one had seen a word of Answered Prayers until the summer of 1975 when a story in Esquire was billed as a chapter from the long-awaited, finally forthcoming, novel. A few months later, in the same magazine, there appeared a second story, seemingly unrelated but supposedly part of the novel, which set New York society’s teeth on edge. Capote, in that story, sliced his friends off at the ankles. He told secrets, bared confidences, detailed scandals, disclosed intimacies and hung out more dirty linen than a lot of that gold-plated coterie had ever counted on seeing in print. Immediately, the social set reacted like a burnt spider.
Capote offered no explanation or apology. In May of 1976 he published a third story from the novel. And here is where he gave the shiv to a literary friendship that had spanned three decades.
Capote created an admittedly pseudonymous character called Mr. Wallace. He is America’s most acclaimed playwright. He is “a chunky, paunchy, booze-puffed runt with a play moustache glued about his iconic lips.” He has a corn-pone voice and a pet bulldog. He is paranoic. He is a hypochondriac and expects to die at any moment. He is convinced the critics have turned on himl He laments the death of his homosexual lover. And Mr. Wallace—whom the world took to be an unmistakable portrait of Tennessee Williams—is made more memorab le in Capote’s story for having engaged the services of a male prostitute and then proposing to extinguish his cigar in the young fellow’s rear.
The ink of that Esquire story was scarcely dry before Williams had dipped into an ample supply of venom and pulled out a vengeful epithet for Capote.
It was “rattlesnake”.
Well before Christmas, chairman of the Mississippi Arts Festival, Mrs. Heber (“Sister”) Simmons, began making overtures as to the availability of Tennessee Williams. It seemed more logical to invite the playwright because he was, after all, a native Mississippian. He had never appeared on stage in his home state. And, despite the height to which he had raised eyebrows with his revealing Memoirs (1975), there was an undeniable devotion to him among some of the state’s more literate groups.
Williams’ agent, Bill Barnes offered no encouragement, however. Sister Simmons, never a woman to be outdone, shot at the other star, firing off inquiries to Capote’s agent. The reply was a polite No. “Mr. Capote feels that he must closet himself in order to finish the book he is currently writing.”
So, for the first time, the festival committee went to the festival board about an alternate choice for a literary star. James Dickey was considered, a contract was drawn up, tut the board had second thoughts and opted for John Gardner. Gardner’s contract was in the hands of the board, ready for signing, when a telegram arrived from Capote’s agent saying that yes, he would appear. The women in charge of the shindig clasped their bosoms and signed with thanksgiving.
But Sister Simmons would not rest easily until she knew for certain that Williams had personally refused to come to Jackson. She sent out new feelers, fresh inquiries, and dispatched another wire to agent Barnes, with a copy to Williams himself. Then it dawned on her that the festival coffers were empty. All the money had been allocatged.
Raising money in Mississippi to bring in Tennessee Williams can be a furrow-browed chore, particularly when you’re already shelling out three thou for Truman Capote. Potential donors—all the way from bank presidents to prominent professionals—are likely to glance to the side and shuffle nervously at the prospect of paying good money to the likes of those two, regardless of their individual achievements. A kind of magnolia-scented macho rises likethe swamp fog, and when the topic invades beer sessions or hunting outings, the term “damn queers” is heard out loud.
So, Sister Simmons had a few weeks of constant turn-downs ahead, even after Williams informed his agent that he was, indeed, interested in coming to the festival, Finally, with two-thirds of the $4000 pledged, she confronted the board, which eventually agreed to underwrite the rest. If Williams would come, an admission fee of $5 would be charged.
Now, Sister Simmons sat back and waited There was little else she could do.
When Capote’s agent, Irene Smookler, was told that Williams might be appearing at the festival, she said she’s pass that word to her client. Two days later, she phoned Nora Jane Ethridge, seminars chairman, with this message: “Mr. Capote doesn’t care of Mr. Williams comes. He just doesn’t want to look at him.”
Less than two weeks before Festival, a contract with Williams had been signed. His agent has been assured the yes, the playwright was being paid more than Capote. The program had been updated to include Williams and was at the printer. Now, it was Thursday afternoon and Ms. Ethridge was on the phone to Barnes, confirming arrival time and other such details. Mr. Williams was scheduled to go on stage Sunday at 1 p.m., she said. There was no possibility of a conflict since Truman Capote would have already spoken and left town.
“Well, the phone fairly exploded,” says Nora Jane Ethridge. “Bill Barnes just went crazy “Capote? Capote?” he yelled, and went right into a fit about how anybody with any sense would never invite the two men to the same thing, and what did those deceptive women who called themselves fine Southern ladies mean, and if Mr. Williams had cone to Jackson and found that Truman Capote was on the same program how me, Bill Barnes, would have been fired, and well, it went on and on—and before I knew what was happening he had hung up the phone right in my face!”
For two days, the women in charge of the festival breathed short, careful breaths, their optimism corseted by fear that the playwright would cancel. They sent a lengthy telegram to Williams, saying how pleased, how every pleased everyone was that he was coming. They implored Jacksonian author Eudora Welty to call his New York hotel and if she couldn’t get him in person to at least leave a message that she, too, was pleased. And it wasn’t until the 6 p.m. pl,ant landed on Saturday night that anyone was actually sure that Mississippi’s most acclaimed literary son was coming home again.
By then, nerve endings were blood raw from all the excitement that Truman Capote was in town.
Capote’s Saturday had begun with a brunch at the Ethridge house. Predictably, conversations often got around to a mention of Williams. One guest said she was looking forward to meeting him. “You’re in for a big no-treat,” advised Capote. When someone else brought up the question of when Williams latest play, Vieux Carre, might open, Capote remarked, “Oh, his plays open and close so fast you can’t keep up with them.” More immediate concern, however seemed to be on his own appearance on stage.
The crowd arrived early and waited anxiously but patiently. It was an odd assortment and a peculiar one for an auditorium on a religiously-oriented campus. Embroidered jeans sat right next to double-knit leisure suits. Gum-chewing teenagers shared arm rests with blue-haired matrons wearing canary diamonds. And all conversations, regardless of subject matter, halted at 3 o’clock sharp when the place was thrown into sudden darkness, except for a single pink pinspot trained on an edge of the stage. From behind the red velvet curtain, he appeared. His head was tilted back at a rakish angle as he struck a pose, he remained there for a moment, affecting a dislocated hip stance not unlike that of Vogue models of the early 1960s. He was wearing a tannish suit with narrow lapels, and an orange turtleneck sweater. His hands were at his sides until all at once, his right arm shot upward and stayed there, straight, with its hand bobbing limply from its wrist. Amid the roar of applause, someone wondered loudly if he had borrowed that salute from Natalie Wood’s last scene in Gypsy.
Then Capote walked to the podium. The edge of its top reached him mid-chest. He leaned forward to the microphone. He blinked several times in rapid succession and began to speak. Capote’s voice is even more celebrated than his prose. It is as recognizable as a whining mammy-cat—fragile yet somehow strong, condescending but commanding, a rather freakish effect devoid of gruff bass notes, almost as if the transition of adolescence has never visited his vocal cords. He commenced the twice-told tale of a guy in New York who went to a pretty model’s apartment in the Dakota to pick her up for a date. In the living room the man encountered a Great Dane, and while the girl finished dressing, the man amused the dog by bouncing a rubber ball, which the animal would catch in its mouth.
The faint ringing that had begun in the sound system of the auditorium had now reached a loud, hollow echo level and the author stopped his story. Three men appeared from three different directions, each intent on correcting the embarrassing dilemma, but they succeeded only partially. The somewhat muted echo continued its distraction. And Capote continued the saga of the big dog that sprang for a rubber ball and leaped through an open window to its death a dozen floors below.
The audience had started to adjust to the little man on sage. Fewer and fewer nudged each other in the ribs when his voice struck lyric soprano notes. But nervous laughter would mount within the group, erupting every minute or so at the least opportunity. When Capote began reading an early story, “My Side of the Matter,” virtually every sentence was punctuated by spratic giggles from his listeners. It seemed an appropriate response, so with each appreciative round of laughter, his interpretation of the story grew more dramatic.
“My Side of the Matter,” is about a young man with a persecution complex who is riddled with paranoia concerning his wife’s family. It is told in first person, and more than one astute reader has noted its similarity to Welty’s brilliant story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” Capote has vowed that he wrote his story long before reading Miss Welty’s.
Certainly he has written better stories, but seldom has he written more expressive orf, indeed, more theatrical ones. His reading left no point unmade, no nuance unrealized. His gestures were plentiful, and each sweet of the hand, each snarl, each frown, was rewarded with laughter.
But the Peter Lorre-like imp did not go on with his caricature after that story. Instead, he switched the turntable speed from humor to tenderness, and he read his highly autobiographical, “A Christmas Memory”. This time the audience adopted a reverence. Several women dabbed at their eyes in the closing words. Clearly, Capote had won. He had converted the disbelievers, even those who had come to point and smirk, and his victory was evident in the unrestrained applause. The jarring, erratic cadence of the crowd clapping almost managed to drown out the hollow echo of the sound system.
Already four persons had stalked out to the lobby, had demanded and received their money back. One said the Festival folks were putting on a shoddy show. Everybody else, however, appeared determined to hear Capote’s response to audience questions, and the most sensitive of the lot were in for a few attacks of chagrin. When a girl rose and asked if he would mind signing a book for her father, paperbacks suddenly began appearing from purses and from beneath vests, and a lot of autograph seekers gathered at the steps leading to the stage. That’s when the Capote performance fell apart; it had lasted an hour and 38 minutes, and if anybody who had stayed to the finish felt it hadn’t been worth the money, no one said so.
The first thing anyone noticed when entering the auditorium of the Millsaps Christian Center Sunday afternoon was the table placed at center stage. Right smack in the middle of it was a bottle of wine, and to the right of the bottle was a glass, half full of the dark red liquid the sight had the same effect on the first to arrive, and the last. It caused people to sit stiller than people had sat the previous afternoon. Those who had to speak did so in whispers, almost as if the presence of wine in a placed named Christian Center demanded awe. And when Tennessee Williams came on stage promptly at 1 p.m. and stumbled just enough to drop two of the books he was carrying (but managed to hang onto the raincoat draped across his arm) several persons closed their eyes, in dread that it was all true, all those stories about his getting liquored-up and falling out in public. Some remembered what Truman Capote had said on that talk show, that Williams was going around claiming he had cut down on the booze. Capote said he had cut down all right, at least to three or four bottles a day.
At the podium was the woman lieutenant governor, a tall lady who kept reminding the audience, over and over, that the man was a native Mississippian. When she hammered on that point for the fourth time, they laughed. They laughed even harder when she said the governor himself would have been there, had he not been in the hospital getting a medical check-up. The joke was an inside one shared by those who recalled the governor having been hospitalized last year. That, too, was supposedly a check-up but informants reported he was suffering from a gunshot wound accomplished by his wife. They continued the laughter when the tall woman presented Williams with a certificate declaring him an honorary colonel on the governor’s staff.
It was hardly a reassurance when Williams took the mike from the woman and proceeded to sing the first few bars of the esoteric Mississippi state song. And it failed to squelch any scattered uneasiness when, in the midst of an introduction by a lady from his hometown, Columbus, Williams sauntered over to the table and seated himself in the chair behind it.
Oh, Christ, he really is drunk, they thought. But he wasn’t.
After the introduction, he slowly, methodically, raised his wine glass and proposed a toast: “To the imminent recovery of the governor.” The whole place fairly shook with guffaws.
“I know all about Southern proprieties,” he said, “and I don’t want to offend you. Yet I suspect that you expect me to be somewhat unconventional.” And he read a poem called “Ole Men Go Mad at Night”. When he came to a reference regarding “a fox teethed boy” he offered a sliver of parenthetical insight. “That is preparing you for the general, upcoming mood of this afternoon,” he said, “Not that you are not already adequately prepared. And on he went with the poem.
He sat on the edge of the chair, leaning rather precariously on the table, his head framed on one side by the wine bottle and on the other by the microphone. Not infrequently he reached up to stroke a mustache more carefully clipped than his enunciation. On a couple of occasions, he giggled his celebrated giggle, a sort of gentle cross between the sounds of a robust wind chime and a soup spoon caught in a garbage disposal.
He leafed through the book of poetry, hesitating here and there to consider a selection. “I’m doing this unplanned,” he said, smiling, “so in the meantime, you can bite your nails to the quick.” The audience laughed its last laugh of the afternoon. It soon became obvious that Williams was not aiming for humor. He was aiming for sensitivity. He was not offering the audience comedy. He was offering the audience challenge.
He read a longer poem, “The Lady with Nobody at All”. By now he was more relaxed, more comfortable. He was more peaceful. But peace and Tennessee Williams have not walked together often. Throughout most of his 66 years, he has been plagued with gnawing distresses, by claustrophobia, by fear of heart attacks, drinking. His audience didn’t bat an eyelid when Williams read a short piece of fiction named “Mama’s Old Stucco House”. Its central character, Mr. Jimmy, picks up hitch-hiking young men from the nearby air base and entertains them at the house where his mother is dying. There wasn’t a gri9n, even, when Williams read such lines as “An old faggot took me to New York.” The audience was responding to the playwright’s challenge. It was regarding serious creativity as serious creativity. This was no freak they were listening to; eccentric, perhaps, plenty eccentric, but no freak. They were being enlightened, not merely entertained, and it seemed so incidental, whatever might be his sexual preference.
With the final words of the story still hanging in the air like moth trailings, the audience sat motionless, somehow transfixed by a collective shot of Novocain. Then, after a few brief seconds of steady applause, everyone stood at once. No early jump-ups, no late dawdlers. In a single, united movement, the crowd was on its feet, together. It was as if that particular moment had been choreographed, rehearsed, waited for.
Capote had been placed on a Delta jet that morning. Williams had now finished his appearance. Nora Jane Ethridge’s festival duties were three quarters complete. With Williams holed up in an anteroom with a television crew, and the team from People magazine nowhere in sight, Ms. Ethridge could stop fretting and drop all pretenses. She stood backstage with her hands on her hips. “The one yesterday was all you ever hoped for. Why, I had Truman eating out of my hand. But that one, she said, pointing a thin finger toward Williams’ interview room, “he really showed out at first he was the most ungracious, most insulting person I believe I ever saw. But after a while, he was eating of my hand, too. When he’s through in there, we’re going over to my house to have a drink and relax a little before he has to go to the airport.”
Williams sat cross-legged in a wicker chair and accepted a jelly-jar sized glass bucket full of vodka. He was over the rigors of performance. In a couple of house he’d be gone. Around him milled other guests, anxious bo hear but cautious not to seem pushy. All hesitation vanished, however, when the playwright slid into the subject of Capote. They clustered around him, savoring each provocative explicative he spat out. Truman is a gutter rat,” he proclaimed. “Ill-born and ill-mannered. He’s never created an original character and what’s more, he is deliberately malicious. I’d sooner bed down with a cobra than to be in his company.”
The folks in Jackson will be talking a long time about the 14th annual Mississippi Arts Festival, the year when those two came to town. Long after they’ve ceased to remember what the men said on stage, they will recall what was said about each other. Long after Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote have forgotten what each was all about, or indeed, that there was a clash, Jackson will recount tales of it all. By then, some of the stories may still have some vague basis of fact, and perhaps that will be enough. After all, some vague basis of fact is what started it all in the first place.
Sift 3 cups flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder. Mix in 2 cups light brown sugar (it doesn’t have to be packed, for Pete’s sake) and work in a cup of cold butter. Stir in 2 well-beaten eggs with a teaspoon each vanilla and almond extract. Add 2 cups grated coconut, mix well, and drop by spoonfuls onto a lightly oiled sheet pan. Bake at 350 until tops are toasted and bottoms browned.