Mix well a cup of white corn meal with a cup of hot water, a teaspoon of salt, and a quarter cup melted butter. Let this mixture sit for a few minutes, then add another tablespoon or two of meal to make a thick batter.
Herbs, spices, or seeds are appealing options, but I like to keep them simple.
Drop batter by spoonfuls on a well-oiled sheet pan, and bake at 350 until the edges are crisp and the centers firm, right at about 15 minutes. These are best right out of the oven, but reheat beautifully.
For thirty to forty, fry to a crisp and crumble 1 pound bacon, mix with a cup of mayo and 2 cups finely-chopped green onion. Season with Tony Cachere’s to taste, spread on rounds of bread and top with drained tomato slices dusted with salt and dill. These do not keep.
This recipe is a riff of those dense, rich fruit bars the deli in the cafeteria of the Johnson Commons at Ole Miss once sold.
Blend a cup of coarsely-chopped pitted dates with a ¾ cup brown sugar and a stick of soft butter. Sift in a cup of all-purpose flour, a teaspoon baking soda, and a teaspoon salt. Add a lightly beaten egg, a teaspoon vanilla, whatever spices fit your groove (clove and ginger are mine), and a cup and a half of quick-cooking oats. Mix until moist through. Spoon onto a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake on the middle rack of a preheated 350 oven for about 20 minutes.
You can also spread this divine, sensuous, facet of rapture in a pan and slice into bars.
Willadeen Monahan and her sister Geraldeen used to sing on the local radio shows in north Mississippi back in the 1950s. They were pretty and could sing up a storm, but the act never went anywhere. In time they both married and settled down, Geraldeen in Kosciusko and Willadeen in Como, where I became her neighbor.
Panola County gets mighty cold in the deep Delta winter, and when the north wind came whipping down on us like a blue devil, Willadeen would call us up and say, “Y’all come on over and get some of this spoon bread to keep you warm. You know I make the best in the world!” And she did. Here’s her recipe.
Preheat oven to 400. Sift 1 cup cornmeal into 2 cups of lightly salted boiling water. Lower the heat and stir vigorously to a stiff gruel. Remove from heat and mix in a cup of cold milk or cream–this is best done with a whip.
Add 2 well-beaten eggs and 2 tablespoons melted butter. Blend until very smooth and ladle into a heated, well-oiled 8-in. baking dish. Willadeen used a skillet, which gives a nice crust. Bake until firm in the middle and nicely browned, about 40 minutes, less if you’re using cast iron. Serve hot from the oven with molasses or honey.
These days it’s difficult enough to think about a turntable at all, much less to think about one as a piece of furniture. But in the middle decades of the 20th century, they became mammoths.
These record players (for that’s essentially what they were, hi-fi or stereo) came in all sorts of styles to match your other furniture, too: Mediterranean, French provincial, Queen Ann, you name it. Furniture stores sold these primitive behemoths as well as recordings themselves, and it’s through the furniture business that Lillian Shedd McMurry, a former secretary and law student, fell down a rabbit hole and into the land of the blues.
According to her nephew, recording artist John Webb (“Wilder”) McMurry, “My Uncle Willard, Lillian’s husband, and his family weren’t real musical folks. They all had furniture stores. Willard and a furniture store, my dad, Webb, had a furniture store, and my uncle Carl had Super Furniture Market in Jackson. Willard’s niche was used furniture stores and he would buy the pre-existing stock out of a bankrupt store and get it going again. So there was some stock in a hardware store Willard had bought on Farish Street that included 78s of black music, what would have been called “race music” at the time. Lillian had a lot of get-up-and-go, had played the piano early in her life and was interested in music. But she knew nothing about blues or secular music.”
Lillian selected a record and put it on the turntable The record she chose was Wynnie “Mr. Blues” Harris’s “All She Wants to Do Is Rock”, and according to an interview with Living Blues magazine in 1986, what she heard changed her life. “It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” she said. “I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.”
“So Lillian,” Webb continued, “being enterprising, set the rest of the records out on the counter and they sold like hot cakes. And she began to get more involved.” Lillian acquired more records and began selling them on a full-time basis. She made trips to New Orleans and Memphis to bring in more recordings and eventually the couple converted the hardware store into a record/furniture store called Record Mart-Furniture Bargains.
The store specialized in blues, gospel and what was then called “hillbilly” music. Between walk-ins and mail orders the business began to thrive. “The Record Mart became a very big mail-order business,” Webb said. “I didn’t know until recently how big a deal that was.” It wasn’t long before Lillian got the idea to record her own material using local talent. Lillian and Willard McMurry became the founders and owners of the Diamond Record Company, which released records on the Trumpet label. “God, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Lillian said later.
What she was getting into was a pioneering position in the roots music recording industry. The label’s first releases were gospel recordings by the St. Andrews Gospelaires, a 3-piece jubilee group from the Enoch Grove Baptist Church, and the Southern Sons, who were the most popular and influential gospel groups performing during the early 50s in the Mississippi Delta. McMurry made many trips to the Delta to sign up talent, and on one she signed up a “harp” player who called himself Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy Had garnered a devoted following through his appearances on “King Biscuit Time” over station WFFA in Helena, Arkansas.
McMurry signed Sonny Boy to a contract in December, 1950. She did not learn until years later that his real name was Alex “Rice” Miller. Miller had appropriated the name of another highly-regarded harmonica-playing blues singer because he had once been convicted of stealing a mule from a neighbor. He had whitewashed the mule, which was a sure disguise for the animal until the next inevitable Delta downpour. With McMurry riding herd on him, Sonny Boy Williamson (II) turned out a string of blues standards, including “Eyesight to the Blind”, “Nine Below Zero” and “Red Hot Kisses”, written by Lillian herself. Sonny Boy also wrote a tribute to McMurry’s car, which was recorded as “Pontiac Blues”.
Edward Komara, former head of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, said, “The main thing I remember about Lillian McMurry is her toughness, which was a combination of a low tolerance for bullshit and a lion-taming instinct. This toughness was not something she had to develop while running Trumpet. She may have well had it since birth. She was also born with a pageant-quality beauty, as evidenced by the published photos of her in her 50s, taken during the Trumpet years. But musicians and record industry people alike learned she was much more than a pretty face.”
However she came by it, Lillian McMurry’s toughness became a key asset in the rough-and-tumble world of the independent record business. Sonny Boy Williamson, her biggest star, was hard-drinking, cantankerous and prone to drunken brawling. Williamson also carried a knife and a gun and freely used profane language, but only once around Lillian. Legend has it that when Williamson began cursing in the studio one day, Lillian told him to leave. When he refused, McMurry took his own gun, which she had taken the precaution to relieve him of, marched him outside and sent him on his way. A much-humbled Williamson returned a couple of weeks later, and McMurry took him back in.
According to Webb, McMurry had problems with other artists as well. “She had Elmore James under contract, but Elmore had problems sticking to it. At one point, she got a tip-off and had to go to Canton to bust up a recording session that Elmore had no right to do. There’s actually a tape recording of a telephone conversation between Elmore and Lillian where he’s asking about coming back, and she said, ‘Well, Elmore, would you stand hitched?’ meaning would he honor a contract. But he never followed up on it.”
Elmore James’s only Trumpet recording, “Dust My Broom”, became a nation-wide hit and a classic in the blues repertoire. “She and Willard were visiting with my parents when I was in high school or junior high, and she was sitting there in the front room and I was dashing out the door with a vinyl copy of “Tommy” by The Who. And she said something like, ‘Oh, I thought the rock opera was an abortion,’ or an abomination or something like that. And I left thinking, ‘Well what does she know?’ but later I realized they recorded HER song wrong. She cut the original ‘Eyesight for the Blind’ but they did it in a minor key with a whole different feel and melody.”
But the Trumpet label was short-lived. Even with such brilliant talent stock as Jerry McCain, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Willie Love, competition with labels having deeper pockets eventually proved to be too much. According to blues aficionado Dr. Woody Sistrunk, “One of the biggest reasons Trumpet ended was that a large record distributor in Texas went broke. And back then, it was not cash for sale. A lot of business was on credit, especially as records became hits. If a record became a hit, you had to get it to a pressing plant, and no one had a pressing plant except for the big labels. You had to have it pressed, and if you didn’t get paid by your distributors, or one-stops as it were for stocking juke boxes at the time, you simply didn’t have any money to pay them off,” Sistrunk explained.
“At the very end of Trumpet, Sonny Boy Williamson was the biggest artist that the label had. His contract was traded to Buster Williams’ Plastic Products in Memphis as a trade for some of the label’s debts,” Sistrunk said. “Williams then turned over Sonny Boy’s contract to the Chess Brothers with options, who in turn picked up Sonny Boy and ran with him.”
After only five years (1951-56) in the business, this was Trumpet’s last note. “That was it, except for another $50,000 that Lillian and Willard had to absorb, which they did strictly through hard work,” Sistrunk said. “A lot of people don’t realize how important their studio was. Many of the records were cut at the old State Furniture Company at 211 State Street on the corner of State and Pearl. For a long time, they would cut records in the back room on Sunday afternoons with someone else’s equipment. But by 1954, they had a studio at 309 Farish Street where they were cutting a number of things. That was another big expense during 1953-54, and that set them back some as well.”
Lillian McMurry was a scrupulous businesswoman, a meticulous bookkeeper and obsessive when it came to royalties. “For eight years, I maintained her Trumpet papers at the Blues Archive,” Komara said, “and she never let a single detail slip by. She fought hard and successfully for the artists whose financial estates she assisted. She continued until her death to assist her Trumpet recording artists, scoundrels though they sometimes were. She demanded honesty and got honesty and delivery of contracted promises from them during the recording sessions, and in return she made sure they received what was due.”
“She knew about artists’ egos and she protected them, plus she knew about artists’ sufferings and made sure they all got paid,” Sistrunk said. Vitrice McMurry Rankin, Lillian and Willard’s daughter, said, “Mom was always a strong-willed and fierce person who fought for what was right, treated the musicians with a great deal of dignity and fought for their rights. She was incredibly cagey, and could deal with copyright lawyers on a level of legal think so that she was able to win most of the suits she brought. “
“She was actually close to graduating from Jackson School of Law when she met my Dad and got married, which seems untypical of her that she wouldn’t have gone ahead and finished school,” Rankin said. “She had that kind of steel clamp of a mind that could handle thousands and thousands of legal ramifications and technicalities and argue to the death. I think some of the settlements she got were just to get her off their backs because she was so utterly relentless in her pursuing of these people who did so much bold-faced thievery. She would tend to spend $10,000 to make $10,000. Who knows ultimately if financially it was worth it, but ethically it was, because so many people were vindicated.”
But McMurry’s upstanding business ethics were often sorely lacking in other recording business personalities of the 50s. And the demise of the Trumpet label may have been in part to unscrupulous machinations on the part of other record labels. “Lillian told me that there were some people who wanted to press her out of the business,” Sistrunk said. “And one big label allegedly said, ‘If you stock her labels, we won’t let you stock ours.’ This was a big label, and every jukebox carried this label, and it seemed pretty ugly.”
After McMurry got out of the music business, she still maintained a studio. According to Sistrunk, “’From the Bottom’ and a lot of the later Sonny Boy Williamson songs were recorded there, and she was the one ‘at the knobs’ when Earl King did ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ for Ace Records. ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woofie Flu’ could very well have been recorded there as well.”
The impact of the Trumpet label on American music has been profound and lasting. “You can’t describe Trumpet’s contribution to music history strictly within a blues niche,” Sistrunk said. “You’d have to describe it in terms of the music of Mississippi that was not being recorded, that being gospel with the Southern Sons Gospel Quartet, that being Lucky Joe Almond, Jimmy Swan and all the other hillbilly artists and that being Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love with the blues.”
“All of those folded together are basically what made rock-and-roll as we know it. It’s all incredible.”
In the summer of 1988, V.S. Naipaul visited Jackson during a tour of the American South that resulted in his travelogue A Turn in the South, which was published the following February. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, had by that time achieved international recognition with novels such as The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr. Biswas, and had also become an important observer of post-colonial politics and societies in works such as The Middle Passage, An Area of Darkness and Among the Believers.
It was in this vein, that of a writer exploring an exotic culture, that Naipaul visited the South, ostensibly to compare it to his own Trinidadian background. Though the issue of race was an obvious area of interest, the importance of race as a subject seems to move farther to the background as the work progresses, and Naipaul finds himself increasingly preoccupied with describing the culture of the South, including country-western music, strict Christianity, Elvis Presley and rednecks.
This shift of focus seems to take place largely in the section on Mississippi. Entitled “The Frontier, the Heartland”, his visit to the state is for the most part restricted to Jackson, though he does visit a cemetery in Canton, a catfish processing plant in Belzoni, the Presley home in Tupelo and a retired Supreme Court justice in (of all places) Eupora.
While in Jackson, he talked with many people—including Eudora Welty and William Winter—yet he seems most captivated with a character he calls Campbell, from whom he received a description of rednecks that fascinated and entranced Naipaul to the extent that he seems to become obsessed (he describes it as “a new craze”) with rednecks not merely as a group or class of people, but as almost a separate species; at one point, when someone tells him that “There are three of your rednecks fishing in the pond,” he “hurried to see them, as I might have hurried to see an unusual bird . . .” Naipaul’s obsession with working-class whites began with the interview I reproduce here in part because its several pages long for the benefit of those such as myself who are interested in how class distinctions work in our professedly democratic society. Naipaul writes:
I had the vaguest idea of what a redneck was. Someone intolerant and uneducated—that was what the word suggested. And it fitted in with what I had been told in New York: the some motoring organizations gave their members maps of safe routes through the South, to steer them away from areas infested with rednecks. Then I also became aware that the word had been turned by some middle-class people into a romantic word; and that in this extension it stood for the unintellectual, physical, virile man, someone who (for instance) wouldn’t mind saying “shit” in company.
It wasn’t until I met Campbell that I was given a full and beautiful and lyrical account, an account that ran it all together, by a man who half looked down on and half loved the redneck, and who, when he began to speak of redneck pleasures, was moved to confess that he was half a redneck himself. It wasn’t for his redneck side, strictly speaking, that I had been introduced to Campbell. I had been told that he was the new kind of Young conservative, with strong views on race and welfare . . . Campbell was also the man who represented the other side of the religious South: the authoritarian side. And it was of family and values and authority that we spoke, all quite predictably, until it occurred to be to ask, “Campbell, what do you understand by the word ‘redneck’?” And—as though it had been prepared—a great Theophastan “character,” something almost in the style of the seventeenth-century character-writers, poured out of Campbell. It might have been an updated version of something from Elizabethan low-life writing, or John Earle’s Microcosmography (sic), or something from Sir Thomas Overbury . . .
Campbell said, “A redneck is a lower blue-collar construction worker who definitely doesn’t like blacks. He likes to drink beer. He’s going to wear cowboy boots; he is not necessarily going to have a cowboy hat. He is going to live in a trailer someplace out in Rankin County, and he’s going to smoke about two and a half packs of cigarettes a day and drink about ten cans of beer at night, and he’s going to be mad as hell if he doesn’t have some cornbread and peas and fried okra and some fried pork chops to eat—I’ve never seen one of those sons of bitches yet who doesn’t like fried pork chops. And he’ll be late on his trailer payment. He’s been raised that way. His father was just like him. And the son of a bitch loves country music. They love to hunt and fish. They go out all night to the Pearl River. They put out a trotline—a long line running across the river, hooks on it every four or five feet. They bait them with damn old crawfish, and that line’ll sink to the bottom, and they’ll go to the bank and shit and drink all night long, and they’ll get a big fire going. They’ll check it two or three times in the night, to see if they’re getting a catfish. It’ll be good catfish. Those redneck sons of bitches they they’ll rather have one of those river catfish than one of those pond catfish. They’ll say it’s got a better taste.
Religion? They’ll go to church when the wife beats the hell out of him. But he’s not going to put on a coat and tie or anything. He won’t do it. He’ll kick her ass.They’re not too sexual. They’d rather drink a bunch of old beer. And hang around with other males and go hunting, fishing. We’re talking about the good old rednecks now. Not the upscale ones. They’ve got the dick still hard. That’s damn true. If they’re young they got it hard, but the older they get they drink more, and then they don’t care about it any more. And she’s just there, getting some clothes washed down in the Laundromat once a week. Sit down and watch it and smoke some cigarettes—that’s right, that’s what she will do.
I’ll tell you. My son ain’t gonna fool with a redneck girl in Rankin County. Can’t hide it. Everybody knows everybody else. They talk different. And I want my children to stay in their social strata, and that’s where they’ll stay. I would say, ‘Keith,, you weren’t brought up like that. You get your ass out of that. You’re way above that, and we’re going to stay way above that.’ But Keith’s all right. He wants to dress nice; he wants to look good; he wants to make money. We run in the Northeast Jackson crowd. That’s supposed to be upscale.”
“I grew up poor! We were so poor! Rupert, tell them!”
“They were so poor they had to piss in a bucket a block away!” Rupert said from the back porch, where he was working on the lawn mower.
“But we were proud!” Lucretia said. “My mother, she was the old Creole blood. She sold the calas on Dauphine, her apron white as an old nun, stiff as a young priest, and she’d go, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” And all the girls who worked up in their rooms, they’d come down to get Mama Diart’s cakes for their gentlemen who were sleeping it off in the beds like they’d get the strong coffee from Monsoir’s. The bottle they had already.”
“We ate the rouge ser riz, all the time! If we were lucky, Mama would get the ham joint that Hector Monsoir had saved for her because you see he was secretly in love with Mama from a long time ago when she was so beautiful and slender like a dancer with her laughing eyes.”
“They were so poor, she had to share her brassiere with her sisters!” Rupert tried to crank the lawnmower, but failed and he cussed.
“But not like those beans they make now!” Lucretia shouted. “Pah! Those beans they make now they taste like those little wads of dough the Italians boil to put in that red gravy they make. Beans that have no bones, no flesh, no . . . spirit. They use those big long-nosed beans, those . . . what do they call them, yes, them kidney beans, the light-colored ones like a bean the white people in the country use to put on their meal bread.” She made a face like spitting. “And they should be pissed on! No, she used the little red beans she bought from old Helene on Magazine.”
“They were so poor, if her brothers didn’t wake up with bones, they didn’t have anything to play with!” Rupert pulled the cord and the mower cranked, coughing and spitting. He pushed it into the yard and began mowing.
“She would bring the beans home when she sold her cakes, put them in the big pot on the back of the stove with water enough over the joint and start the laundry for the ladies in the Quarter. All afternoon they’d soak, and she’d start the fire. She had the herbs, too, from the market on Decatur, and pepper.
When we all got home she made the rice, and we would eat while all around us we could hear music play and see shadows dancing in the pretty rooms where the ladies sprayed perfumes on the pink lampshades.”
However far second to ducks, the Peabody Hotel’s vanilla muffins do command a select notoriety. The recipe dates from well before the 1940s, when they were served as late-night snacks for audiences of the big band orchestras in the Peabody Skyway They’re still served at the hotel for breakfast. This is a scaled-down version of the “official” batch recipe at historichotels.org,.
Cream two cups of sugar with four eggs. Add four cups plain flour sifted with a tablespoon baking powder, a pint of whole milk, two ounces melted butter, and a tablespoon natural vanilla. Mix to make a sticky dough, spoon into greased muffin tins, and bake at 400 for about fifteen minutes.
It’s late summer. The exhausting heat endures, and September’s sure to extend the drought, but on a (rather singular) bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets.
North America has two native grape species, Vitis labrusa, often called the fox or possum grape, and Vitis roundifolia, which most people call a muscadine. While the wild fruit of both species is edible, the fruit of cultivated varieties are vastly superior.
Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet, the sort of thing a little old lady would poison, pour into cut crystal apéritifs, and serve to a middle-aged rogue she’d discovered was cheating on her with the choir director.
The name muscadine comes from its similarity to early settlers with the Muscat grape, a Mediterranean type used in making muscatel, both words deriving from the Sanskrit muska-s (testicle,) in reference to the musky scent of the fruit. (Never underestimate etymology.)
Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black/purple and the white/bronze. The white/bronze type is called a scuppernong because of a natural cultivar so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any ”white” muscadine grape.
These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy; when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor, and of course that essential hint of musk. They’re a little bit pricey, but to me, they’re worth it.
You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies , as well as the aforementioned wines, but their fresh taste is incredibly wonderful, so keep a bowl on the kitchen table during the season to nibble on.
To each pound 90/10 ground beef, add a quarter cup finely diced onion, two minced cloves garlic, a tablespoon of salt, two of coarsely-ground black pepper and three of Worcestershire sauce. Form into patties, brush with light vegetable oil and refrigerate for at least an hour. Grill until just done; they should be pink in the middle. Top with smoked cheddar before serving.