One of Anthony Bourdain’s last works is an introduction to Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, originally published in 1975. In this tribute, Bourdain calls Mitcham’s cookbook “one of the most influential of my life.”
Dan Simon, founder and publisher of Seven Stories Press said he and his team approached Bourdain because they knew that he was “an admirer of Mitcham.”
Bourdain’s culinary career started in the early 1970s in Provincetown, where Mitcham was already a legend. “He was just so terrific,” Simon said. “I think he loved the gusto with which Howard lived his life and cooked and brought it all together.”
A writer, a scholar and an artist as well as the foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great.
A name chef during what Bourdain himself called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of food, people, art and lore.
Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times.
His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his writings on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seem to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority.
“People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”
James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on June 11, 1917. His father, a house painter, died when he was a year old. His mother moved to Vicksburg to find work, leaving the infant Howard with her parents on their watermelon farm on Sawmill Road. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis.
For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherency. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”
Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University as an art student, and at some point, in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery.
What quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown.
His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1975 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. Bourdain, who worked in Provincetown during the mid-1970s when he was attending (of all places) Vassar, knew Mitcham and in his Kitchen Confidential writes that “Howard was the sole ‘name chef’ in town.”
“To us, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues,” Bourdain wrote. “He could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen’s bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly (he liked to sing as well). Though drunk most of the time and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman of Cape cod cookery, a respected chef of a very busy restaurant and the author of two very highly regarded cookbooks: The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook and Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz—two volumes I still refer to, and which were hugely influential for me and my budding culinary peers of the time.”
“He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer’s gut and he wore the short-sleeved-snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for the humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.”
“We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook.
Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”
Whisk together 2/3 a cup of cocoa, 2 cups plain flour, 1 ¼ packed cup brown sugar, a teaspoon each of baking powder and soda, and dash or so of salt. Set aside. Beat 2 large eggs into ¾ cup milk. Add 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and a slash of vinegar along with a melted stick of butter. Mix dry and wet ingredients. Blend just enough to ensure the moisture is evenly mixed; muffins don’t need a lot of work. Bake at 350 for about a half hour.
In the spring of 1863, the war dividing the nation focused on Vicksburg. Lincoln told his civilian and military leaders, “Vicksburg is the key!” Confederate President Davis was of the same mind: “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” In Confederate hands, Vicksburg blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi and allowed communications and reinforcements from Confederates to the west. The natural defenses of the city were ideal, earning its nickname of the Gibraltar of the South.
Frustrated in his former attempts to take Vicksburg, the Battle of Port Gibson (May 1) gave Union General Ulysses S. Grant a much-needed foothold on the eastern bank of the Mississippi south of the city, but Grant felt that he needed a base north of Vicksburg that could be supplied via the river from Memphis and Port Hudson to subdue the stronghold.
Grant’s Confederate opponent in the campaign, General John C. Pemberton, was of the same mind: “To take Vicksburg, to control the valley of the Mississippi, to sever the Confederacy, to ruin our cause, a base upon the eastern bank immediately above (Vicksburg) was absolutely necessary.” Pemberton admitted that such a move on the part of Federal troops “might destroy Jackson and ravage the country”, but “that was a comparatively small matter.” Though Jackson had the only secure railhead east of Vicksburg, a vital connection to the rest of the Confederacy, Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian who had taken up rebel arms, thought little of Mississippi’s capital city on the Pearl in comparison to his vital command on the Mississippi.
To secure this hypothetically crucial base above Vicksburg, Grant, along with his trusted lieutenant William T. Sherman, moved the Army of the Tennessee to the northeast, and on May 12 headquartered his troops at Dillon Plantation some 6 miles west of Raymond. About sundown, as the camp was settling in to its evening routine, an excited courier drove his lathered horse into camp and poured out the news that Federal troops under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps had encountered a large Confederate force commanded by Brig. Gen John Gregg at Raymond, defeating it after a savage battle. “When the news reached me of McPherson’s victory at Raymond,” Grant later wrote, “I decided at once to turn the whole column towards Jackson and capture that place without delay.”
Beforehand little more than a dot on a map in the mind of the great Union captain, Jackson now came into focus for Grant as a military objective. He had become convinced that Confederate forces assembling in or near Jackson might be stronger than he had initially supposed, and he had reports of reinforcements pouring into the city, including Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander of the Department of Tennessee and Mississippi. Johnston was widely respected by his troops, fellow officers and even President Davis, with whom he had an acrimonious relationship.
These reports put at risk Grant’s proposed crossing of the Big Black near Edwards, a move designed to bring his troops north of Vicksburg, since it would leave a potentially strong army commanded by a reputedly able general on his rear flank. He now saw more clearly the city’s value as a communication and transport center through which supplies of men and war materials could be funneled to Vicksburg. In addition, destroying Jackson, which also had some importance as a manufacturing center (mostly of cloth), would cripple the state’s ability to supply the rebel army. It’s reasonable to assume that Grant would also be aware of the impact on morale that the capture of the capital city of Mississippi, the home state of President Jefferson Davis, would have on the Confederacy as a whole.
Grant was confident that he could take Jackson then swing his forces back to the west before Pemberton took notice. It was an audacious ploy; by this move to the northeast of Port Gibson, Grant had cut himself loose from his base, but the Northern general had learned to provision his troops as they marched, taking what they needed from the farms and villages they encountered, and the Union army found plenty to sustain their progress. Because the city was reputedly heavily fortified, he decided to strike with his entire army, 10 divisions, some 40,000 men. Grant positioned McPherson to the north and Sherman to the south of his eastern advance towards Jackson, positioning Gen. John A. McClernand on the western flank, facing any possible attack from Pemberton’s troops in Vicksburg.
Jackson, at the outbreak of the war, had a population of 3,191 (Vicksburg had 4,591 and Natchez, the most prosperous city in the state, 6,612.) The city’s arsenal had been destroyed in a disastrous explosion the previous November; Confederate troops stationed there for its defense numbered some 6,000. Well before the final advance of Federal forces, the city seemed to have resigned itself to subjugation. As early as May 2, Pemberton (ever the fatalist) telegraphed Governor J.J. Pettus, advising him to remove the state archives from the capital. By May 6, people began leaving Jackson. The Mobile Register and Advertiser reported, “The trains for the interior are crowded with non-combatants, and the sidewalks blocked up with cases, barrels, old fashioned trunks and chests, which look antiquated enough to have come out of Noah’s Ark.”
By the time Johnston arrived to take command of the city’s defense on the 13th, all who had the means to escape the city had done so, and the Confederate commander’s assessment of his chances to save Jackson could not have been buoyed by the then funereal aspect of the beleaguered capital. Johnston knew his situation was dire; Pemberton had refused his request for reinforcements from Vicksburg the previous week, and the additional troops promised by his superiors had yet to arrive. Johnston was met in Jackson by Gen. Gregg, who was forced to retreat to Jackson with his 3,000 soldiers after the fierce encounter at Raymond. Faced with a two-pronged Union attack by able commanders leading some 25,000 troops and with no time to organize any reasonable defense, Johnston, a seasoned general and career solider, retreated to the northeast.
On May 14, Union forces advanced towards Jackson in a deluge turning roads that had choked them with dust for weeks into trenches of shin-deep mud. After two short skirmishes lasting less than four hours, Grant’s troops entered a silent Jackson under a pouring rain. The Battle of Jackson, such as it was, had ended. Rails and bridges were destroyed, factories put to fire. Vicksburg’s artery to the east was cut; in less than two months, the Confederate Gibraltar would fall into Union hands. Jackson, abandoned by its defenders and occupied by a hostile army, was looted and burned by soldiers and civilians alike for the first of four times, bitterly earning its nickname: Chimneyville.
The Illinois Central’s Green Diamond by Howard Bahr
In the decades following the Great War, American culture shook itself out of the Nineteenth Century and woke to fresh ideas and new possibilities. Youth, having liberated Europe and ended war forever, had a voice for the first time in our history. Cynicism and joi de vivre found ways to cohabit, and under their common roof, Youth created a new way of living. Jazz was the soundtrack. Flappers in short skirts, long beads swinging, danced the Charleston, the Fox Trot, the Shimmy: girls smoked cigarettes and drank gin in public and were picked up from Mama’s house by sheiks in fast cars. The Imagists’ admonition–“Make it new!”–resonated everywhere.
Downtown, the staid dignity of the Chicago School gave way to soaring silver skyscrapers that transformed city skylines. In the suburbs, new houses traded a classical vocabulary for the sleek lines, portholes, and minimalist décor of the Moderne. Aluminum and glass replaced busy fretwork; cluttered, over-stuffed parlors vanished, and porches disappeared; tall Lombardy poplars, nature’s answer to Arts Decoratif, graced the landscaping. Even everyday objects like radios, toasters, pencil sharpeners, vases, clocks, mirrors, and telephones took on new forms in the up-to-date household. The automobile industry, ever alert to the public’s whims, abandoned the boxy bodies and spoked wheels inherited from horse-drawn carriages and began to experiment with streamlining, a movement that culminated in the startling 1936 Chrysler Airflow.
When that car and others like it appeared on showroom floors, they represented not only a revolution in style, but in movement as well. Newly-paved highways beckoned, and the motorcar, liberated from Sunday drives and trips to the park, was recast as a ship of dreams. The world was opened up in an unprecedented way: as Dinah Shore would sing in 1953, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet! America is asking you to call!” Travelers, once bound to the railroads, could now set their own schedules, carry as much baggage as they wanted (no charge!), and rest in the friendly motor hotels springing up in the wilderness.
American railroad companies looked on this newfound Freedom of the Road with misgivings. Railroads had bullied steamboats off the inland rivers, now, in their turn, they were threatened by the automobile. Passenger revenue was still high, but the Detroit competition was available, cheap, and attractive to the public. In 1882, when the railroads were at the height of their tyrannical power, Commodore Vanderbilt of the New York Central could proclaim, in an unguarded moment, “The public be damned!” Needless to say, by the mid-1930s, this sentiment was no longer viable.
To meet this challenge, railroad engineering and PR departments tapped into the Moderne craze and created the Streamliner: a first-class, air-conditioned train with sleek aluminum coaches, specially assigned engines, and a color scheme that ran from the locomotive pilot to the end of the observation car. Design luminaries like Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy brought steam locomotives into the realm of high art: when the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited (Dreyfuss) and the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited (Loewy) raced each other eastbound out of Chicago on parallel tracks, they represented a pinnacle of design unequaled for American industry.
Another innovation was the articulated “trainset,” the railroads’ first great experiment with diesel-electric power. Articulation meant that the power car” (that is, the locomotive) and all the coaches shared wheel trucks and were permanently coupled together, save when they went to the shops for maintenance. Trainsets were short–five or six cars in the consist–ran on tight schedules, and were well-appointed. The CB&Q fielded several silver, shovel-nosed Zephyrs. The UP and C&NW ran a joint City of Denver, the Santa Fe’s Chicagoan/Kansas moderne aesthetic.
The schedule of the Green Diamond was ideally suited for businessmen traveling between the great cities of St. Louis and Chicago, with a stop at Springfield, Illinois’ capitol. Northbound, the train departed St. Louis at 8:55 A.M. and arrived in Chicago five hours later. Southbound departure from Chicago was at the close of the business day, 5:00 P.M., with a St. Louis arrival at 9:55 P.M. Along the way, passengers enjoyed such amenities as air-conditioning, a radio in every car, and excellent dining (see Jesse Yancy’s article below). In addition, the train carried a stewardess trained in dictation, and a registered nurse for the hangovers and heart attacks common among Capitalists in the Great Depression years.
The Green Diamond must have been quite a sight as she glided through the cornfields on a summer’s day, or flashed her green against the snow of winter. People accustomed to a steam engine’s mournful whistle no doubt looked up when #121 blatted her air horn at grade crossings: perhaps they heard in it the sound of the Future, but probably not. Locomotives would always and evermore be driven by steam, just as the Great War had ended all wars, and drugstores would always sell Paregoric.
In the end, the very success of the Green Diamond led to her demise. The St. LouisSpringfield-Chicago schedule proved so popular that passenger traffic began to exceed the limited capacity of the trainset, which could not accommodate the addition of extra cars during a surge of ridership. In 1947, eleven years after her glorious debut, IC #121 and her articulated companions were replaced by conventional, more practical diesel locomotives and coaches. The train’s name and schedule remained, but the moderne novelty was gone forever from the Land of Lincoln.
The final chapter of the trainset’s story began at the Illinois Central’s Paducah shops, where she was given an overhaul. When she emerged, she was freshly-painted in the same two-tone green, but the Green Diamond banner had been erased from her sides. Train crews, doubtless Bemused by the assignment, took her across the various divisions to Cairo, Memphis, and at last to her new home of Jackson, Mississippi. Why she was sent there instead of somewhere else is lost to history, but for the next three years–until she was sold for scrap–she traveled the Louisiana Division between Jackson and New Orleans. Now called the Miss-Lou, her timecard schedule was almost identical to that of the Green Diamond, and she once again provided the reliable, courteous service for which the Main Line of Mid-America was famous. The Miss-Lou moniker derived, of course, from the states through which she traveled, but, as Yancy explains below, it was by another name that she entered the folklore of the Deep South.
We are given some things in life–the Iris, for example, or a young girl’s face–that seem the more beautiful because we know their flowering will not last. We treasure less, perhaps, those things we foolishly believe will last forever. So it was with the great passenger trains that once flowed majestically across the Republic: colorful carriers of Dream and Promise in a time when pride was still part of the national character and anything was possible. They are vanished now, every one scattered across the trash-heaps of memory, and few remain who remember them at all. They will not come again; that they once passed among us is testimony to what we had, and to what we can never have again.
Dining on the Green Diamond by Jesse Yancy
In 1867, George Pullman introduced his first railroad “hotel car,” the President, a converted sleeper equipped with limited dining facilities. In 1868, Pullman built his next all-dining car, which he named the Delmonico after the famous New York restaurant. The Delmonico was placed in service on the Chicago & Alton Railroad between Chicago and Springfield, Ill. Meals were the lofty price of one dollar.
The 1940s and 1950s were the golden age of train travel and the pinnacle of railroad dining car operations. For many passengers, the ambiance of the dining car was the reason they rode the train. The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its first-rate culinary staff and Creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the Kings Dinner, for about $10; other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4 to $5. The menu the Super Chief, called the “Train for the Stars” because it was the choice transportation from the East Coast and Chicago to Hollywood, rivaled that served in many five-star restaurants. A “Wake-Up Cup” of coffee was brought to one’s private bedroom each morning, on request, a service exclusive to the Super Chief. The elaborate dinner offerings generally included caviar and other delicacies, cold salads, grilled and sauteéd fish, sirloin steaks and filet mignon, lamb chops, and the like. For discerning palates, elegant champagne dinners were an option.
In that golden age of the itinerant epicure, the Illinois Central touted their schedules with its most famous advertisement stating, “Enjoy the fastest service ever offered and the supreme luxury of America’s smoothest riding train. Air-conditioned…radio in every car… Stewardess… Delicious inexpensive meals as low as: breakfast 25 cents, lunch 35 cents, and dinner 40 cents.” The ICRR original Green Diamond dining service carried on the railroad’s tradition of fine dining, with every element of complete passenger train service contained in four cars with 200 square feet. With dining seating for only 24, it would take 5 seatings to serve all 120 passengers in the dining space, and that had to be done in the five hour and 10-minute trip. Six serving tray stands were provided in each chair car for use in serving meals at the seats of the patrons, and this helped case the process.
The 22-square feet kitchen was provided with an oil burning range, broiler, warming ovens, urn and steam table. Polished stainless steel was used for the table tops, sinks, chipped ice wells, facings of refrigerators, range, work tables and lower lockers. The interior linings of cold boxes, refrigerator compartments, racks, etc. were also of stainless steel. Dry ice refrigeration, automatically controlled, was used in the large refrigerator, cold boxes, and ice cream cabinet. The kitchen was provided with a serving bay open on three sided to facilitate serving meals. Ornamental panels of inlaid Formica closed off these openings when the kitchen is not in use. An annunciator for waiter service was provided with push buttons conveniently located in the diner-observation car and at the dining section in the chair car.
The Green Diamond’s menu offered an impressive variety for what amounted to a glorified commuter train. Both the a la carte menu and the table d’hote included broiled codfish with anchovy sauce, lamb chops with spiced crabapple, pork tenderloin with yams, chicken a la king, and New Orleans-style pan-fried oysters served with succotash, French-fried potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. Lettuce and fruit salads, cold and hot soups, and freshly baked pie rounded out the menu. The bar offered cocktails, beers, and wines, mixed drinks, sodas (Seven Up and Coca Cola), and a selection of assorted cigars (5, 10, and 15 cents).
When the Green Diamond began her final runs as the Miss-Lou (MISSissippi-LOUisiana) between Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, she left Jackson at 6:20 AM, arriving in New Orleans at 10:20 AM; the return journey left at 6:20 PM and arrived in Jackson at 10:20 PM. This articulated version of the original trainset probably offered little more to eat than cold sandwiches and sodas.
Along rails running among the homesteads of south Mississippi, the farmers along its route noted the green train’s resemblance to a pest, and before long became affectionately known the Tomato Worm.
Once after a truly happy hour at a local bar, a companion and I stopped at the store on our way home and there found a mound of beautiful artichokes neither too tight nor too loose and with a bit of a purple blush.
I just had to get a couple. I called to my drinking buddy, who was cruising the cucumbers, to grab a bud of garlic and a couple of lemons. After picking up a few more items, we headed for the checkout counter where he espied my artichokes.
“And what are you going to do with these?” he asked.
I immediately suggested a physical improbability. Unperturbed, he replied, “No, really, what are you going to do with it?” He admitted that he’d never eaten a fresh cooked artichoke.
Inebriation, dear hearts, is a great initiator but a poor executor, which is how, about ten minutes later, I found myself alone in the kitchen with two beautiful artichokes, diminished incentive, and a hungry guest. Persevering, I heaved a vast sigh, and began cooking.
To cook fresh artichokes, bring a half a quart of salted water to boil in a 2-quart saucepan, add no more than four truncated, trimmed, and stemmed artichokes, cover, bring to a rolling boil, and steam for about 20 minutes.
When you can stick a toothpick in the heart of the bud without a lot of resistance, remove artichokes and plunge into cold water until cooled. Invert into a colander to drain.
Serve with warm garlic butter, and teach virgin to eat. Be gentle. Be patient.
Given the vast and unpredictable foibles of human nature, the genetic integrity of any bloodline can be compromised in the blink of an eye by an errant member, giving rise to such comments as, “Well, her great uncle’s hair was sort of red,” or “That’s what comes from smoking marijuana.”
Surnames, however, being legal entities, provide us with a generally reliable genealogical signpost. I am a Yancey. For reasons as yet undiscovered, my grandfather Jess, one of ten children, dropped the “e” in the customary spelling of his surname. What’s more perplexing is that his siblings, all nine of them, adopted the spelling, so all my nearest name relatives are Yancy.
When I asked a surviving sister of his why Jess, Sr. changed the spelling, she said, “He just did!” and looked at me daring me to say something so I didn’t because I was raised right.
The Yancey family surname hails by most accounts from Wales and in this country is most often found in the southeast, where many of its most distinguished members have lived. Foremost among these is William Lowndes Yancey, U.S. Senator from Alabama, the most vociferous “fire eater” whom some credit with no less than the instigation and subsequent persistence of the Confederacy itself.
It just so happens that my great-great grandfather Yancey was from Alabama as well, and while my relation to the Great Secessionist is vague, Yanceys in close relation joined many others who fled the despoiled post-bellum soil of the prostrate South for the Amazon.
Termed “confederados”, these refugees from Yankee rule settled in Brazil where they still pay a distracted homage to the Old South more for the tourist trade than any significant degree of conviction in its ideals.
One of these days I’m going to hold a Yanc(e)y reunion, and I’m going to invite every damn one of them here. We’ll have the most bodacious dinner on the grounds you’ve ever seen.
During V.S. Naipaul’s visit to Mississippi in 1988, he grew obsessed with rednecks, coming to see them as the “unlikely descendants” of a mythical construct he called a “frontiersman”.
Naipaul himself considered Mississippi—somewhat paradoxically, from a native’s point of view—as both the heartland of the South and a state at the very periphery of culture and civilization itself, which could be considered a rather brash observation from a native of Trinidad.
It’s tempting to speculate on what Welty herself might have thought of Naipaul questioning her about rednecks, but upon reflection, who better to ask than the woman who wrote “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” in June, 1963.
And it was of the redneck, the unlikely descendant of the frontiersman, that I talked to Eudora Welty when I went to call on her. I had arrived early, and could clearly be seen through her uncurtained front window. But I was nervous of knocking too soon.
So for a while we waited below the big, dripping trees in the gloom after rain, she behind her window at the end of her wet front garden, I in the car. And when I felt the time was suitable I walked up to the wet path to her front door. On the door, in her strong writing, was a note asking people not to bring any more books for her to sign. She wanted to save as much of her energy as possible now for her work. I knocked; and she opened, like someone waiting to do just that. She was extraordinarily familiar from her photographs
The frontier was so much in her stories: a fact I had only just begun to appreciate. And she was willing to talk of the frontiersman character.
“He’s not a villain. But there’s a whole side of him that’s cunning. Sometimes it goes over the line and he becomes an outright scoundrel. The blacks never lived in that part of the state. They came over to work on the plantations. Most of the rednecks grew up without black people, and yet they hate them. That’s where all the bad things originate—that’s the appeal they make. Rednecks worked in sawmills and things like that. And they had small farms. They are all fiercely proud. They dictate the politics of the state. They take their excitement—in those small towns—when the politicians and evangelists come. Scare everybody, outwit everybody, beat everybody, kill everybody—that’s the frontiersman’s mentality.”
I told her the story that (a previous interviewee) had heard as a child about the rednecks to the south of the town where she had spent her summers: the story of traveling salesmen who had been roughed up and hitched to a plow and made to plow a field. She had said that this story had come down from the past; and I had thought of it as a romantic story of the wickedness of times past, an exaggerated story about people living without law. But Eudora Welty took the story seriously. She said, “I can believe the story about the salesmen. I’ve heard about punishing people by making them plow farms.”
We talked about Mississippi and its reputation.
“At the time of the troubles many people passed through and called on me. They wanted me to confirm what they thought. And all of them thought I lived in a state of terror. ‘Aren’t you scared of them all the time?’ A young man came and said that h4 had been told that a Mr. So-and-So, who was a terrible racist, owned all of Jackson, all the banks and hotels, and that he was doing terrible things to black people. It was a fantasy. It wasn’t true. The violence here is not nearly as frightening as the Northern—urban—brand.”
A frontier state, limited culturally—had that been hard for her as a writer, and as a woman writer? The richness of a writer depends to some extent on the society he or she writes about.
She said: “There is a lot behind it, the life of the state. There is the great variety of the peoples who came and settled the different sections. There is a great awareness of that as you get older—you see what things have stemmed from. The great thing taught me here as a writer is a sense of continuity. In a place that hasn’t changed much you get to know the generations. You can see the whole narrative of a town’s history or a family’s history.”
[V.S. Naipaul A Turn in the South (1989), pp. 213-14; images from The Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics: 1875-1925 (1951)
Another dazzling recipe from Standing Room Only, the stellar entertainment cookbook published by Jackson, Mississippi’s New Stage Theatre in 1983.
The original recipe states that this breakfast casserole can be prepared the night before and refrigerated, but just don’t. It also calls for a sprinkling of chopped black olives, which is a nice touch.
Beat six eggs in two cups of whole milk, add a teaspoon of dry mustard and two cups grated cheddar. Butter a 9×13 casserole and cover the bottom in a layer of herbed croutons, pour in egg and cheese mixture, and top with crumbled, cooked bacon.
Bake at 350 on a middle rack until lightly browned and springy, about 45 minutes. I like it with a little sour cream.
Angelo Mistilis opened his restaurant on College Hill Road in Oxford, Mississippi, in May, 1962, and fed thousands upon thousands before closing in 1988. The menu featured dozens of items, but by any stable reckoning, first and foremost was his hamburger steak.
“The hamburger steak was on the original menu, the hamburger steak with cheese and onions came in a little later, in the mid to late 60s,” Angelo said. “You could have it regular, you could have it with onions, you could have it with cheese, or you could have it all the way,” Angelo said.
“We used about nine tons of fresh ground beef a year. I had a butcher that got my hamburger meat with all the trimmings, and I got some from James’ Food Center.”
“We always served it with hand-cut home fries,” he added. “We’d use around 1200 lbs. of potatoes a week and two fifty-pound sacks of onions. The cheese was always sliced American, and we served it on a paper plate in a wicker basket.”