Like any Southern city, Jackson, Mississippi has residents from across globe who have good reason not to know they should have a pot of peas on the stove on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, as well as people living in detached, pretentious affluence who consider peas, collard, mustard, and turnip greens, coarse, common, and unfit for their table.
Such people are by far the exception rather than the rule, and most people in Mississippi’s capitol city cook leafy greens and field peas at New Year in observance of regional tradition. Black-eyed peas entered the Southern repertoire by way of Sephardic Jews who settled in South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.
Stewed greens are usually served as well, because leafy cool weather crops thrive in our open winters. The type of greens is primarily a matter of preference, to a lesser extent of geography, but invariably turnip or mustard, collard or cabbage, often a mix. As a cursory observation, cabbage is most often served in urban households, turnip and mustard greens in the country, and collards more often in the lower South, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
The tradition that associates these foods with financial prosperity is clouded in folklore, but then luck has always been associated with riches. In the past, people were known to have cooked peas with coins to ensure wealth, yet because of their shape peas are suggestive of coins, as leaf greens are of paper money, a more obvious analogy in this country where our currency is greenbacks.
However pecuniary, it’s comforting that the South’s traditional New Year’s table offers buoyancy for the uncertain future.
Cheese balls constitute an inevitability during any given holiday. Slapped atop one of those cutesy little carving boards that have a little two-pronged knife on a chain and surrounded by captain’s wafers, Ritz crackers or—at the New Year’s keg party—saltines, the cheese ball has become an entrenched feature of the American holiday table.
In their primitive state, Cheese balls first became manifest in the White House. Do try not to be too surprised. The first executive cheese ball was crafted by Elder John Leland of Cheshire, Massachusetts in 1801. Purportedly the Baptist community of Cheshire donated milk from over 900 cows to make a 1,235 pound ball known as “The Mammoth Cheese.”
Preaching all the way to Washington (some things never change), he transported the ball by wagon and then rolled it across the White House lawn to serve it to President Jefferson. Rumor has it that this ball of cheese lasted for two years until Jefferson finally had the remains thrown into the Potomac.
Then in 1835 dairy farmer Colonel Thomas S. Meacham of Sandy Creek, NY, crafted a titanic cheddar four feet in diameter, two feet thick and weighing nearly 1,400 pounds wrapped in a colossal belt bearing patriotic inscriptions for President Jackson . This cheese lasted so long that Jackson’s successor, Van Beuren, had to rip out the curtains in the “cheese room” and have the walls sanded and whitewashed.
Cheese balls as we know them first appeared in 1944 at patriotically modest gatherings. A columnist for the The Minneapolis Star, Virginia Safford—who aspired to “eat her way around the world”—chronicled culinary Minneapolis in Food of My Friends, and describes a cheese ball made by a Mrs. Selmber E. Ellertson. Stafford’s follow-up book, Friends and their Food (1969), features recipes for “Cheese in the Round” and “Cheese Rolls.”
The cheese ball really found its place in the 1970s, but–like disco and lava lamps–eventually developed a bad rap. Writing in 2003, New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser wrote, “Cheese balls tend to be associated with shag rugs and tinsel, symbols of the middle-class middlebrow.”
What with all the artisan cheeses flooding the market nowadays in addition–I like to think–with some degree of nostalgia for bell-bottoms and bean bags, cheese balls are making somewhat of a comeback. They’re a nice nosh, after all, and with some degree of restraint make a minimal impact upon the drapery. Options are endless, but most cheese balls are savory rather than sweet. Here is a classic recipe from Standing Room Only, a cookbook for entertaining published by New Stage Theatre in 1983.
1 pound cream cheese, softened, 2 tablespoons finely minced onion 1 4-oz. jar chopped mushrooms, drained 1 4-oz. jar chopped pimento, drained 1/2 cup finely chopped ripe olives 1/4 cup chopped green olives 1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar 1/4 cup Worcestershire Finely chopped nuts for coating
Mix all ingredients, chill overnight, then shape into a ball and roll in finely chopped nuts. Wrap and refrigerate overnight before serving.
When assembling the board, bear in mind that it’s more about making the right impression than feeding people, otherwise, why not just throw some baloney and cheese on a plate with a jar of mayo and a loaf of Wonder bread on a card table near the keg?
It’s all about appearance, and the very fact that you accessed this article in the first place is solid evidence that you’re trying to rise above your raising. Well, never let it be said that I shirk at the opportunity to give fellow aspirants a leg up. These tips can help you put together a platter that will impress those frozen hairdo harpies in the Junior League.
First, choose your surface. My rule for this is that is should be lightly oiled wood; plastic is just out of the question, glass is rather chintzy, and metal inappropriate. The board sturdy, unwaxed, unvarnished, and clean. I prefer a dark color. Patterns tend to get lost, though I did have a friend who once used a ouija board for Halloween. (Nobody touched it. NOBODY.) If you don’t have a good board, go to Home Depot and have them cut you one, any size (or shape) you like. Always wash your board and wipe with culinary oil before setting up.
In addition to the board itself, you’ll need some small dishes for plating and serving. Chances are, you probably have a lot of fussy little plates and saucers around the house you can use, or go to the local thrift shop and pick up a selection. You can also find all kinds of cool little cheese knives, picks, and other serving do-dads there. Go shopping on the cheap, and do what you can to avoid having to buy plastic serving utensils. Keep it simple: white or glass dishes, a little color, try to avoid anything busy.
Nice cheeses and meats are generally on the pricier side. That being said, the grazing board is where you should feel comfortable splurging, since the board itself makes a display on the buffet table, and it feeds a lot of people who are just schmoozing. Use at least three types of cheese, about 2 ounces of cheese per person, and provide knives for each type. Take the cheese from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving. Keep your meats in groups. (NO JERKY!)
For fruit, use whole berries and grapes. I always use halves of pomegranates for color. Do not use fruits that will discolor like apples, bananas, or pears or juice fruits like citrus. Keep a separate bowl of whole fruits—apples, bananas, pears, citrus—nearby; this also serves as décor. Add dried fruit: pineapple and apricot, figs and dates. Sweets are usually not included, but honeycomb is a nice touch.
Serve marinated olives, artichoke hearts, cucumbers, beans, and other vegetables in bowls. Use slivers of sweet peppers and nuts—pecans, pistachios, smoked almonds—fill in gaps. Include cornichons and gherkins (cornichons are dilled gherkins, not sweet gherkins; all cornichons are gherkins, not all gherkins are cornichons).
Add breads, crackers, and nuts at the end to fill in spaces. Choose breads and crackers of different shapes, flavors and colors: rounds, rectangles, wheat, white, rye, whatever; arrange some on their side, some flat and fanned. Provide a bowl of honey with a dipper for fruit, cheese, and soft bread. You’ll also need an herbal butter and mustards such as a Dijon-style, spicy stone-ground, and horseradish. Yellow mustard is far from verboten, and provides a nice splash of color. Use fresh rosemary and thyme for greenery and aroma.
My family’s New Year’s celebrations always included fireworks and black-eyed peas. Many of the fireworks were left over from my father’s superb Christmas collection, which contained the usual array of bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers, but he always had a few fire fountains and a sparkling rocket or four put away for the last night in December. The peas, which we had on the table year-round, assumed an incandescence all their own that night as signatures of memory and rapport.
Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country. Among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.
In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endures as evidence of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage.
This is another recipe I made at the Harvest Cafe in Oxford, a vegetarian restaurant on the corner of Jackson and South 10th. On the brunch shift, I’d make soup specials, which was always a challenge, because the black bean chili was outstanding and one of the most popular dishes.
Under duress, I rose to the occasion and in a memorable effort made a gumbo using black-eyed peas. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes seemed a good combination for our clientele; most people who ordered soup wanted something warm and filling around Sunday lunch time, and this recipe seemed a good alternative to the favorite chili.
My idea received a guarded reservations; when my boss, John Anderson, asked me what he needed to put on the blackboard as the soup of the day, I said “black-eyed pea gumbo.” He blinked his eyes behind those big glasses he wears, slowly nodded his head and said, “Okay”, which in my experience with this gentle man I recognized skepticism of a profound and imponderable nature.
Jennie Lee, my co-worker, asked me if I’d lost my mind, but she’s from Charleston, was more perloo than gumbo. She also didn’t sign my paychecks.
Besides, the dish was well underway. I’d made a good brown roux with vegetable oil and our lightest flour, added minced garlic, chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. This primordial goo I combined with a good base made with vegetable stock and seasoned with basil, thyme, oregano and bay. Not only that, but I’d been soaking the peas since happy hour the day before, and they were simmering on a back eye. I also had two packages of organic okra stashed in a refrigerator in the back; these were expensive contraband (imagine the price of a frozen package of organic okra in 1995 Mississippi), but essential to my enterprise.
The okra I rinsed under warm water before adding it to the pot to relieve it of ropy-ness. The peas I drained but kept the liquid. After adding the peas and okra to the pot, I started adding the liquid to achieve a good consistency (I like it thickish, but with a good juice) then added two small drained cans of diced tomatoes that I’d smuggled in from James’ Food Store. Once that was done, I began adjusting the seasonings, and finally put the gumbo in a serving pan on the line.
Of course, John ordered the first bowl. His critique was just as laconic as his first, but delivered with a smile, which I took as a positive sign. This interpretation was confirmed when the orders started coming in, many for the gumbo. This earned me a grateful nod from my co-workers, since pouring something in a bowl and sending it out the window is one of the less stressful acts you can perform in a busy kitchen.
Before the end of the shift, John came into the kitchen and said, “They loved your gumbo. How did you make it?”
Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident–if not always distinct–clarion that sounds from the center of Lafayette County across the world.
Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s oeuvre spans generations.
Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess, as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, and it’s important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed, and, yes, fallen South, however better perceptible by far in his own assessment than by any others’.
Diana Kennedy introduced Mexican haute cuisine to American tables with her landmark 1972 cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, introduced by Craig Claiborne. Kennedy recommended viable substitutes in an era when Mexican produce was unavailable, and provided significant procedural details. I have substituted corn oil for lard, diced, dried fruit for candied fruit, and canned tomatoes for fresh.
There is always an exclamation of pleasure and surprise when a cazuela of golden, puffy chiles rellenos sitting in their tomato broth is presented at the table. If you have eaten those sad, flabby little things that usually turn up in so-called Mexican restaurants in the United States as authentic chiles rellenos, you have a great surprise in store.
Here is yet another prime example of the fine feeling the Mexicans have for texture in their food: you bite through the slightly crisp, rich chile poblano to experience the crunch of the almonds and little bits of crystallized fruits in the pork filling. Then there is the savory broth to cut the richness of the batter. Assembling the chilies may seem like a long laborious task, but it is no more complicated and time consuming than most worthwhile dishes, and this dish is certainly worthwhile.
Cut 3 lbs. lean boneless pork into large cubes. Put them into a sauce pan with one large white onion, chopped, and two minced cloves of garlic, a teaspoon or so of salt. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil, lower heat and cook until just barely tender, maybe 45 minutes. Let the meat cool in the broth. Strain the meat, reserving the broth, then shred or chop it finely and set it aside. Let the broth get completely cold and skim off the fat. Reserve the fat.
Cook about a cup of chopped onion with 3 minced cloves of garlic in about a half cup of corn oil without browning. Add meat and let it cook for a few minutes. Add a tablespoon of freshly-ground black pepper, a teaspoon of ground clove, and a teaspoon of cinnamon along with 2 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds, 2 tablespoons raisins, and three or sour finely-chopped dates. Add two cups crushed tomatoes and increase heat. Cook until meat mixture is almost dry.
In a blender or food processor, puree two cups diced tomatoes with a half a white onion, coarsely chopped, and two minced cloves of garlic until smooth. the juice extracted from their seeds, with the onion and garlic until smooth. Place the fat skimmed from the meat broth to a pan, add the tomato puree, two bay leaves, a teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper, and a half teaspoon each ground cloves and dried thyme.
Add 3 cups of the reserved pork broth, continue cooking on high heat for 15 minutes, then lower heat and simmer until slightly thickened. You don’t want a thick sauce, you want it brothy. Add salt as necessary.
Roast 6 large poblanos on an open flame or under a broiler until the skin blisters and burn. Make sure they don’t get overcooked or burn right through. Wrap the chilies in a damp cloth or plastic bag and leave them for about 20 minutes. The burned skin will then flake off very easily and the flesh will become a little more cooked in the steam.
Make a slit in the side of each chili and carefully remove the seeds and veins. Be careful to leave the top of the chili, the part around the base of the stem, intact. Rinse the chilies and pat them dry. Stuff the chilies until they are well filled out. Set them aside on paper toweling while you make the batter.
Separate 4 eggs. Beat the whites until they are stiff, but not too dry. Add a few dashes of salt and mix in the four egg yolks one by one, beating well after each addition. Pat the chilies completely dry (or the batter will not adhere) and sprinkle them lightly with flour. Coat them with the batter. Fry the chilies in hot corn or safflower oil, turning them from time to time, until they are an even gold all over. Drain the chilies on the paper toweling, place them in the tomato broth-it should come about halfway up the chilies- and bring them up to heat on a low flame.
You can prepare the stuffing and the sauce the day before, and skin and clean the chilies. But do not put the stuffing into the chilies until about 2 hours before cooking. You can coat and fry them just before your guests arrive and leave them on paper toweling in a warm spot until the last moment, when they can be just warmed through in the tomato broth. In Mexico they are served by themselves, just before the main course. But they make a very good main course in which case you could serve two small chilies.
If you have any picadillo left over it will freeze very well; reheated, it makes a very good filling for tacos. The tomato broth, too, will freeze and can be used for other dishes.
Southerners share an acute awareness that most of our fellow countrymen view us with disdain. This knowledge of ill regard is something we learn from an early age, and the message is amplified and compounded by a steady stream of negativity from every imaginable source: books, movies, television and other media, not to mention personal experiences garnered by traveling outside our lands and meeting that contempt face-to-face.
As powerful as this imprint is, still it can come as a shock, particularly for a Mississippian, who even among their fellows from other Southern states are pissed upon as if from a great height, to find that a person you admire for talent, wisdom, and at least an ostensible generosity of mind can be vehemently bigoted towards a region and people never visited. Such was my reaction to Bill Bryson’s account of a visit to Mississippi in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which Bryson chronicles a 13,978 mile trip around the United States in the autumn of 1987 and spring 1988.
When I was a graduate student studying English as a language, Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) captivated me. Witty, informative and occasionally dazzlingly well-written,–he hangs 10 all through Middle English–Bryson came across as the bluff, jovial professor of the sort one should hope to have in a subject that can be stupefying.
Many years later, when I came across Bryson’s account of his journey through Mississippi in The Lost Continent, I was stunned to discover him, a native Iowan now living in Britain, as full of bile as most American writers who venture south and dismayed to find his account packed with the usual shopworn stereotypes, clichés, and overt contempt. Here’s some of what he wrote.
Just south of Grand Junction, Tennessee, I passed over the state line into Mississippi. A sign beside the highway said, WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI. WE SHOOT TO KILL. (my emphasis, jly) It didn’t really. I just made that up. This was only the second time I had ever been to the Deep South and I entered it with a sense of foreboding. It is surely no coincidence that all those films you have ever seen about the South – Easy Rider, In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, Deliverance – depict Southerners as murderous, incestuous, shitty-shoed rednecks. It really is another country. … I followed Highway 7 south towards Oxford. It took me along the western edge of the Holly Springs National Forest which seemed to be mostly swamp and scrub land. I was disappointed. I had half expected that as soon as I crossed into Mississippi there would be Spanish mosses (sic) hanging from the trees and women in billowy dresses twirling parasols and white-haired colonels with handlebar mustaches drinking mint juleps on the lawn while armies of slaves gathered the cotton and sang sweet hymns. But this landscape was just scrubby and hot and nondescript. Occasionally there would be a shack set up on bricks, with an old black man in a rocking chair on the porch, but precious little sign of life or movement elsewhere.
At the town of Holly Springs stood a sign for Senatobia, and I got briefly excited. Senatobia!What a great name for a Mississippi town! All that the old South stood for seemed to be encapsulated in those five golden syllables. Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was sweaty and overweightand sat low in his seat. I assume he was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I could feel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin’?” This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?” “I said, how yew doin’?” “I’m fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.” “Y’on vacation?” “Yup” “Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?” I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m kind of slow, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.” “I say” – and he repeated it more carefully – “how doo yew lack Mississippi?” It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it’s wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn’t been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I signed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.” I drove on to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as it’s known. The people named the town after Oxford in England in the hope that this would persuade the state to build the university there, and the state did. This tells you most of what you need to know about the workings of the Southern mind.Oxford appeared to be an agreeable town. It was built around a square, in the middle of which stood the Lafayette County Courthouse, with a tall clock tower and Doric columns, basking grandly in the Indian-summer. Around the perimeter of the square were attractive stores and a tourist information office. I went into the tourist information office to get directions to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home. …
Behind the desk sat a large, exceptionally well-dressed black woman. This surprised me a little, this being Mississippi. She wore a dark two-piece suit, which must have been awfully warm in the Mississippi heat. I asked her the way to Rowan Oak. “You parked on the square?” she said. Actually she said, “You pocked on the skwaya?” “Yes.” “Okay, honey, you git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya. You goes out the other end, twoads the university, goes three blocks, turns rat at the traffic lats, goes down the hill and you there, un’stan?” “No.” She sighed and started again. “You git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya–” “What, I drive around the square?” “That’s rat, honey. You makes the skwaya.” She was talking to me the way I would talk to a French person. She gave me the rest of the instructions and I pretended to understand, though they meant nothing to me. All I kept thinking was what funny sounds they were to be emerging from such an elegant-looking woman. As I went out the door she called out, “Hit doan really matter anyhow cust hit be’s closed now.” She really said hit; she really said be’s. I said, “Pardon?” “Hit be’s closed now. You kin look around the grounz if you woan, but you cain’t go insod.” I wint outsod thinking that Miss Hippy was goan be hard work.
There’s more; some worse, some better. Bryson visited Tupelo and Columbus as well, but in the final analysis. he left Mississippi with pronounced relief, and his impressions of the state were, I’m disappointed to say, rather much what we have come to expect of most people who visit with preconceived prejudices and with no desire to do anything more than capitalize upon the surety that their condescension would be well received by the world at large.
Then again, perhaps something akin to sour grapes may involved. Bryson never got around to finishing that screenplay of Absalom, Absalom!, likely because his diminuating, dismissive assessment of the Southern mind rendered him incapable of encompassing–much less fathoming–Faulkner’s world.
In 1950, when William Styron was a low-level reader at McGraw-Hill , he rejected a book written by a Norwegian explorer about an 8000 mile voyage across the Pacific Ocean on a hand-built raft. The book, Kon Tiki, later became an international best-seller and made Thor Heyerdahl a legend.
Had Styron not been such a scribbler he might have realized that Heyerdahl’s book would catch the tiki wave that had been cresting in popular culture since U.S. troops came home from the Pacific. In 1947, James Michener won a Pulitzer for his Tales of the South Pacific, which were based on his service as a lieutenant commander in the New Hebrides Islands. The book was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into the musical South Pacific that premiered in 1949 on Broadway and ran for 1,925 performances.
It was wanna-be Cajun Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt who kicked off the mid-century tiki culinary craze. Ernie claimed to have been from Mandeville, LA, but grew up in Texas. After sailing the South Pacific, he changed his name to Don Beach, moved to California in 1934, and opened a Polynesian-themed bar, ‘Don the Beachcomber,’ in Palm Springs. Three years later, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, adopted a tiki theme for his restaurant in Oakland.
It wasn’t long before tiki got a lot of surf all the way to the East Coast. During the 50s and well into the 60s, tiki parties were a popular spin on those must-have barbecues, involving smoky bamboo torches, rickety pastel patio furniture, neon paper leis, and loathsome drinks with teeny-tiny parasols.
A mai tai became the quintessential tiki cocktail, and rumaki the quintessential tiki appetizer. Ernie is credited with inventing rumaki; it first appeared on the menu at Don’s, as “mock Polynesian”, marinated chicken livers and water chestnuts skewered with bacon and broiled. In time, rumaki became a cliché cocktail appetizer in dozens television shows and films.
Heat half cup of grated ginger in a cup of vegetable oil until bubbling. Keep at heat for about five minutes and drain. Mix oil with lite soy 1:2 with brown sugar and to taste. Cut the livers into bite-sized bits and whole water chestnuts into halves. Marinate both for at least an hour. Wrap livers and chestnuts in bacon sliced to size, skewer, and grill or broil until bacon is crisp.
As incredible as it may sound to us now, in the 1940s the Old Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg was under threat of destruction from the very city itself.
The building is perched on the highest point in Vicksburg on land given by the family of the city’s founder, Newitt Vick. Construction began in the summer of 1858 on what was then to be a new Court House for Warren County. Contractors were the Weldon Brothers of Rodney, Mississippi, who used 100 highly skilled artisans to make the brick and erect the building, which was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000. During the War, the building dominated the city’s skyline and was the target of much Union shelling but suffered only one major hit. It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U.S. Grant reviewed his victorious army.
With the construction of a new Warren County Courthouse in 1939, the Old Courthouse stood practically vacant for years, and there was talk of its demolition. What was possibly planned to take its place on the highest point in the former Gibraltar of the Confederacy goes (perhaps mercifully) unrecorded.
But a local activist, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, realized the significance of the building and established the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the purpose of preserving the structure. In 1947 she was elected president of the society and with the help of volunteers began cleaning the building and collecting artifacts.
On June 3, 1948 the museum opened its doors, where she continued to work on a volunteer basis for many years. Eva Davis was a local celebrity; she had a daily radio show, “Court Square”, which was a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg for many years. She put out two cookbooks, Court Square Recipes and Mississippi Mixin’s, both likely in the 1950s, though neither book is dated. A grateful public added the name Eva W. Davis Memorial to the Old Courthouse Museum several years before her death in 1974.
Mississippi Mixin’s was illustrated by her fellow townsman and renowned Mississippi artist, Andrew Bucci. Sadly, Bucci’s art is reproduced in black and white, but the impact of the images is still powerful, perhaps even somewhat enhanced. Most of Bucci’s artwork in the book is comprised of small images for chapter headings, doubtless resized from larger works, but two large images are printed full-page (5.5×7). Again, dating these works has so far been unsuccessful and it is not known whether the original artwork still exists.
At least one image is by artist Suzanne Wilder, who was a student in the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a popular resort in Way, Mississippi that was established in 1889. The Mississippi Art Colony was founded at Allison’s Wells in 1948, and Bucci along with noted Jackson artist Mildred Wolfe taught there until 1963, when the resort was destroyed by fire, then relocated to Utica, Mississippi.
“Jack,” I said, “I’ve been reading this article about honky-tonks . . . “ “You shouldn’t read things like that,” he said, turning his head from a football game to growl at me. “It always gets me in trouble.”
Jack is my first cousin, a really great guy and the only friend I have in the family. We’ve seen one another through thick and thin. I helped him back up on his feet out of a really bad marriage, and he rescued me from a crack house in Atlanta. We take care of each other, Jack and I do, but lately he’s been feeling like he’s doing all the work, which isn’t fair of him at all. For one thing, I’m always the designated driver, and if it weren’t for me, his jeans would look like denim accordions.
“What’s that place you always go to? ‘Hippy Dick’s’? I could hear Jack groan all the way in the kitchen. “No!” he said. “You said it had a juke box?” “It doesn’t have any ABBA on it!” “Pool tables?” “You can’t play mahjong on a pool table!” “Pickled eggs, pigs’ feet and jerky?” “No! Sushi!” “Jack,” I said, “Be fair. I heard a long sigh. “What are you wearing?” he asked. “I thought khakis and a button-up Oxford, hushpuppies . . .”
Jack held his hand up. “If you go in there looking like a reject from Rush Week at Ole Miss, you’re going to end up in the Yalobusha River with a trot line tied around your feet.”
So I left the house wearing jeans, flannel, a pair of Jack’s old boots and a cap that said “Embry’s Bait Shop” with a Marine insignia. At least he let me pick out which of his flannel shirts to wear. “Lucky for you pink don’t look good on me,” he said. Jack’s got a weird sense of humor.
Hippy Dick’s was on the side of a long winding road that twisted through the backwaters of a nearby reservoir. It had big a gravel parking lot that Jack said the county kept up because Dick was the supervisor’s second cousin. It had a neon sign on top that said DICKS and a bait shop on the side.
The bar had a big mirror behind it, and two television screens; a large one near the back wall, which seemed continually tuned to ESPN, the other, smaller one, set up near one end of the bar tuned to “E!” with a bucket of iced beer on a towel in front of it. The jukebox was blaring out Faith Hill. It was crowded, about forty people. You had the sports guys crowded around a big screen television, about a dozen guys playing pool and a little more than that bellied up to the bar.
Jack ordered our drinks: a Miller Lite for him, an O’Doul’s for me. “He’s driving,” Jack explained to the bartender, a drop-dead gorgeous ginger with a gambler’s spade beard.
“Is this your date?” he asked Jack with a wink. “Rick, this is my cousin Andy,” Jack said. Rick reached a muscular arm over the bar, smiled and shook my hand. I couldn’t help but giggle. Jack punched me in the arm and dragged me over to a table.
“You’re going to get my ass kicked if you don’t straighten up. Why don’t you sit here and try not to fluff your hair while I play a game of pool?” “Now I’m going to have to go to the men’s room to look at my hair.” “Make sure that’s all you look at,” he said.
Having checked in the rear view mirror before I got out of the car, I knew my hair looked fine, so I wandered over to the jukebox. Sure enough, there wasn’t any ABBA, but a couple of tunes did stand out: “YMCA”, “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” and two tunes by Madonna. I saw Jack looking at me from the corner of my eye, played it safe and picked out Reba. I was just straightening up when this woman at the bar said, “Yeah, he gave me a little rock and a little cock!”
Naturally, I froze, but nobody else seemed to notice. I turned to look at her. She was in her mid-30s, brunette, big tits, freckled cleavage. I turned to Jack, who shrugged and sank the three ball in a side pocket.
“Hey, you at the jukebox!” she said. “Come here!” Jack miscued and stood up, glaring at me. I just shrugged at him, turned to the lady at the bar, smiled and walked up to her. “Are you Jack’s cousin?” “Yes, I am,” I said. “His momma is my daddy’s big sister.” “Well, y’all sure do look alike,” she said. “Just handsome as you can be!” She laid her hand on my arm. “I just want you to know that song you played is my favorite one in the whole, wide world.” “’Little Rock’”? “Yes, honey. And do you know why?” “No, why?” “Because my husband had a little cock, and he gave me a little rock.” “That would piss anybody off,” I said.
I heard someone behind me choke on a beer, but I paid no attention, went to the other end of the bar and asked for a refill. Rick obliged with a stunning smile, but before I could thank him, a guy on a stool next to me poked me in the ribs.
I turned and found myself facing a rakish blond wearing a Saints jersey. “I like them jeans you got on,” he said. “What size you wear?” “Uh, on a good day, a 32,” I said. “I used to be fat, too,” he said, and before I could protest, he said, “But I got on that Atkins diet. You know, the one that Ozzie’s wife is always doin’ ads for.” “I’m not fat!” “Oh, I didn’t think I was either, but you got this here,” and he patted my stomach and started rubbing on it. “Nice little beer belly …” He let his hand linger a little too long. “Yeah, well, that’s mostly pizza,” I said, shifting away. “Hey, I like pizza, too, but I really like them bratwursts,” he said, with what can only be interpreted as a leer.
“ANDEE!” Jack’s voice thundered across the bar. “You’re UP!” I certainly was. “Be right there!” I said over my shoulder. “I’ve got to go,” I said to the dirt road d’Artagnan. “Maybe you can come over for a brat sometime,” he said. “Sure!” I caught Rick smiling at me in the mirror.
Jack soon decided it was time to go. He’d lost forty bucks at pool and Lady Little Rock had her hand glued to his arm. I was ready to go myself. As we were driving off, Jack asked me if I had a good time. “I sure did,” I said. “Rick gave me his phone number.”