Charlotte Capers: “The House”

In addition to their numerous charitable endeavors, the Junior League of Jackson has issued two quite remarkable publications. The first, in 1978, was their landmark Southern Sideboards, a truly luminous work that has since gone through fifteen printings, five of those Southern Living Hall of Fame editions. The recipes in Southern Sideboards altogether comprise nothing less than an exhaustive tutorial for home cooks in the Deep South, and if that weren’t enough also includes a heart-felt introduction by Wyatt Cooper.

Their second, more important work, is Jackson Landmarks (1982) dedicated to the Manship House, one of Jackson’s most beloved architectural treasures. Jackson Landmarks is important not only for the wealth of detail and historical data, but also because Jackson’s urban landscape has changed significantly in the 35 years since its publication, and an estimated 25-30% of these structures are gone.

Jackson Landmarks also includes this essay by Charlotte Capers. Miss Capers was director of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History from 1955-1969, and during that time saved the Old Capitol from destruction and saw to its renovation and establishment as the state historical museum. Miss Capers also oversaw the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion. In addition, Capers was a “world-class raconteur”, a writer (The Capers Papers as well as hundreds of magazine articles and book reviews) a wit and a close friend and companion of Eudora Welty. Charlotte Capers is a significant figure in Mississippi history and deserves a work of equal if not greater thoroughness than the one recently afforded Fannye Cook.

The House

My first opportunity to participate in this book was an invitation to write a brief and breezy history of Jackson.” Well, Jackson goes back to the 1820s and I don’t, so I declined. When I was reminded that I do go back to the 1920s, and what’s a hundred years more or less, I agreed to write a few recollections of my old home at 705 North State Street, as I remember it and as for me it was the heart of Jackson when I was very young.

When I first saw the house it was white, and I was five years old. Therefore, it remains in my memory as white, and only recently I learned that it was not white to begin with, but a darker hue much favored by home owners of the 1890s, when it was built. Perhaps it was buff or brown or gray. It doesn’t matter, except to point out that things are not always what they seem. The house was built by Mr. and Mrs. A. D. Gunning on the corner of North State and George streets. The Cunnings had a large family and must have been much given to hospitality, as the house was plainly built for entertaining. A large reception hall opened into a graceful living room on one side, and a dining room with striking midnight blue wallpaper and painted white paneling on the other. A mirror was built into the ornately carved hall mantelpiece; a central staircase which divided and curved upward from the landing was the architectural focus of the hall. Shining oak floors invited dancing, and of more concern to my mother, suggested more rugs than we had and required a good deal of waxing and polishing.

After the Cunnings, the house was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur C. Crowder. Mr. Crowder was at one time mayor of Jackson; Mrs. Crowder was the former Mattie Robinson Saunders, whose family home was a block away on the corner of North State and Boyd streets. When the Crowders moved to Birmingham, the house was purchased by St. Andrew’s Church as a rectory for my father and his family. Subsequent owners were the Lamon Goings, who had a Studio of the Dance therein, and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Jacobs, who adapted the house for use as a retail outlet for their business, Greenbrook Flowers. The original architecture is essentially unchanged.

As I see the house now, it is big. As I looked at it with five-year-old eyes, it was tremendous. Adorned with every detail and conceit available to admirers of the Victorian style, it had towers, minarets, gables, a scary basement, a cobwebbed attic, cushioned window seats, and wonder of wonders, swinging doors for the dogs. Scaled to fit the family canines, these doors opened at the touch of a muzzle. When I tried to describe them to a contractor for my own house, he was confounded. My dogs have to bark to get in. So everything isn’t more convenient now than it used to be. Ask the dogs. Anyway, when I was a child I saw the house as a fairy-tale castle, and untroubled by the economic realities of maintaining such an establishment, I thought it was a perfect home.

This depends upon your point of view, of course, and I remember Our struggle to keep the house warm in the winter. Beautified by countless windows and French doors, 705 North State was a veritable cave of the winds. The windows called for draperies which we could not afford, so my mother settled for glass curtains. My childhood memories seem to return filtered through yards and yards of filmy material, which let in the light as well as the breezes. Another problem was the coal furnace. Coal was expensive, plus the fact that my father had to stoke the furnace and bring coal to the fireplaces throughout the house. My father solved this problem by rising above aesthetics and installing a pot-bellied stove squarely in the middle of the elegant reception hall. This at least indicates that he put first things first, like not freezing to death. The feature of the house which I remember with most affection, next to the dog doors, was my bathtub. It was splendid, something like a gondola, mounted on iron paws with a stalwart wooden rim. Into its watery vastness could submerge the vicissitudes of childhood, and dream great dreams as they soaked away. When I left that bathtub, and moved to a shorter and stubbier one, my dreams grew shorter and stubbier.

It seems to me that 705 North State Street was a fine place for growing up in Jackson and learning the lay of the land. Around the corner and less than five minutes by skate, foot, or bicycle, was Davis School. The New Capitol was only a few blocks away, and young skaters did not hesitate to skate through the tiled basement floor and admire the Egyptian mummy who was the star of the building. A streetcar track ran in front of the house. When we were very young, we would put two straight pins on the track, spit on them, and wait for the streetcar. As it rumbled past it fused the pins into a charming design of crossed swords. If you wished to travel, the streetcar could deliver you north, south, or west. East was the Pearl River, and the suburbs in that area were not yet developed. As St. Andrew’s was the only Episcopal church in Jackson for a long time, my father’s congregation was scattered all over town and from Clinton on the west to Madison on the north. Sometimes Father would let me ride with him in the family Essex when he went calling, and we covered a lot of territory. The Fairgrounds were within walking distance, as were the downtown picture shows. Beulah, my nurse, took me to the Fair every year on the five dollars my grandmother sent us. This included lunch. When we got home, Beulah became our cook. I should note that Beulah was not my nurse because I was sick, but because I was a child, and nurses were what children had in the 1920s. Nurses were for taking care of children, cooks were for cooking, and so far as I knew, maids had bit parts, like “Your carriage awaits, madam,” in the occasional stage plays which came to the Century Theater.

An interesting thing, at least to me, is the fact that I can remember the telephone numbers of the neighborhood children, I have always had a block in my head about numbers, and now I have trouble remembering my own telephone number. At any rate, to suggest the size Of Jackson in the 1920s, I could get Mary Woodliff at 2628; Winifred Green at 1210; Ann Sullens at 560; and Maude McLean at 247. As Maude’s father was a doctor, we thought we would help his practice, which did not need any help, by making up a jingle for him. It went like this: “If you think you’re going to heaven, call two-four-seven.” I believe you call the Fire Department nowadays, whatever your destination.

The Depression was an exciting time at 705 North State. There were a good many home weddings, as it was more economical to get married in the Rectory than in the home of the bride. Sometimes a drop-in bride and groom, having proven that they were of age and met other canonical requirements long since forgotten, got married in the living room, and if any of my friends were there Father might ask us to be witnesses. This custom ended when Winifred Green and I stood up with a lisping groom, and got the giggles every time he repeated his vows. Mother was good about entertaining, and we had a lot of company. I always had a Hallowe’en party and a birthday party, and during the Depression some of our company often included tramps. Tramps are now known as vagrants or street people, but they amount to the same thing. Our tramps knew the best places for a handout, and occasionally one would make a great impression on my father, who would invite him to spend a few days with us One of our favorites called himself Jiggs, and more than repaid us for our hospitality by his tales of travel and adventure. Jiggs left us wearing my father’s clerical vest, and some months later appeared in a news magazine, photographed in ecclesiastical garb while attending a Tramps’ Convention in Washington. It is interesting to observe that in spite of the real economic hardship of the Depression, I don’t remember it as a bad time. It was in the 1920s that we learned to dance, and perfected our skills later during the Depression at dances in our homes, including the Rectory, to the Dixieland jazz of Joe White and his combo, fifteen to twenty-five dollars for four hours, depending on the number of instruments.

This isn’t much of a “brief and breezy history of Jackson,” but it may recall a certain time in a certain place, both gone forever. North State Street has just about given up the ghost, the town has grown into a city, the city has spread into the suburbs, and sometimes I can’t remember my street address. •sour crowd” had a good time, there was room in our house for friends and my grandparents and my brother and his wife, and even for transients who could tell a tall tale. Much of what was once “old Jackson” was swept away by commercial development after World War Il, but as this is written, 705 North State Street still stands!

 

Faulkner and Welty for Children

What compels writers of great works for adults to write for children? For whatever reason, many do, and some titles are familiar: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and T.S. Eliot wrote a series of whimsical poems published under the title Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

More obscure are Joyce’s, The Cat and the Devil, Twain’s, Advice to Little Girls, Woolf’s, The Widow and the Parrot, Mary Shelley’s The Fisher’s Cot, and then we have these little-known children’s books by two of Mississippi’s brightest literary lights; Welty’s The Shoe Bird and Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.

In 1927, Faulkner gave the story that was to become The Wishing Tree to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. Faulkner was still infatuated with Estelle and had hopes of her leaving her current husband and marrying him, which she did in 1929. Faulkner typed the book on colored paper, bound it himself and included a lyrical dedication:

          To Victoria

     ‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells; mine air
     Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.

     Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve,
   Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’

But Faulkner made copies for three other children as well and when Victoria tried to publish the book decades later, copyright had to be worked out between the four. In 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese.

The Wishing Tree is a grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious red-haired boy in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92-year old man through a “soft wisteria scented mist” to find the Wishing Tree. They wish, and they unwish, and at the end they meet St. Francis who gives them each a bird–a little winged thought.  The Wishing Tree is about the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration. “If you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.”

On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, which went through three printings that year alone and no more. The book is now regarded as a literary curio from the man who put an Ole Miss coed in a cathouse in Memphis.

Eudora Welty finished what was to become The Shoe Bird in 1963 under the working title Pepe to fulfill a contractual obligation to Harcourt Brace—and to put a new roof on her house. She sent the final draft to Diarmund Russell in March, and he was enthusiastic: “totally charming—something all ages can read.” Eudora readied what was now entitled The Shoe Bird for publication in early 1964 with illustrations by Beth Krush, dedicating it to Bill and Emmy Maxwell’s daughters, Kate and Brookie.

The Shoe Bird is Arturo, a parrot who works in The Friendly Shoe Store “in a shopping center in the middle of the U.S.A.,” helping Mr. Friendly greet customers and bringing him a match for his end-of-the-day pipe. Arturo’s motto is: If you hear it, tell it. One day, a little boy who was leaving the store said, “Shoes are for the birds!” and after the store had closed Arturo, true to his motto, repeats the phrase and all the birds in the world—including a dodo and a phoenix—gather at the shoe store to be fitted for shoes. The Shoe Bird is a nice little story with lots of puns, but it’s heavy-handed with the moral of speaking for oneself instead of just repeating what others say.

Reviews in adult publications were “cordial but restrained,” while reception among children’s literature commentators was either negative or—as in the case of the influential Horn Book, nonexistent. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as uneventful and concludes: “the overly wordy result is so obscure that readers are likely to want to leave dictionaries as well as shoes to the birds.” An orchestral ballet was composed by Welty’s friend Lehman Engel and performed by the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1968. A 2002 choral piece was also commissioned by the Mississippi Boy Choir and composed by Samuel Jones.

As to what compels a writer to write for children, can it ever be as simple as to win over a childhood sweetheart, or to roof a house? It’s never that simple, and it’s not that easy.

How to Bake a Potato

Method is the most important part of any recipe, even how to boil an egg, for which there is no good way. My method for baking potatoes results in crisp, toothsome skin and a molten, crumbly center.

Any given potato must be washed and scrubbed, then dried thoroughly before coating with salted oil and placing in the oven, which must be very hot. A large (10-12 oz.) white potato will take an hour in a 400F oven. Potatoes can be pierced and microwaved to start, but should be finished in the oven; likewise, waxy potatoes should be parboiled. Wrapping them in foil before baking ensures a steamed potato, which is wonderful and nostalgic, but lesser fare than baked.

 

On Buying Tomatoes

Once tomatoes shed their reputation for poison, they became the most versatile vegetable in American kitchens. While tomatoes are available year-round any fool knows that they’re best in season and locally grown. Any produce vendor in the American South is going to keep at least one big bin usually right up front and center full of field tomatoes grown by small truck farmers and delivered every morning. When you’re buying from one of these people–and it’s the only place you should buy tomatoes in the summer–it’s hard to go wrong, but there are a few things you should bear in mind.

Use your common sense. Choose uniformly firm fruit, without any squishy spots, bruises or dark spots. The most commonly-grown field tomatoes in central Mississippi and likely throughout the mid-South are Big Boy, Better Boy, Celebrity and (Arkansas) Traveler, all of which are more or less red-ish the Traveler tending to pink. Most of the old-school produce vendors will occasionally have “cherry” tomatoes of some kind or the other in season, but you’ll have to find markets that support specialty growers, such as the Mississippi Farmers’ Market, to get the varieties such as Cherokee, Krim or any of the various yellows. You can of course always get good green tomatoes for pickling or frying.

Remember that the tomato is a climacteric fruit, which means they ripen (i.e. become softer and sweeter) after harvest. The biochemical process involved is that climacteric fruits give off large amounts of ethylene gas whereas non-climacteric fruits give little or no ethylene gas. Non-climacteric fruits, once harvested, never ripen further; you can find an extensive list here.  Tomatoes sold in the winter and for the most part any sold in big chain supermarkets are picked green and “gassed”, sprayed with ethylene during shipping, which forces coloration, but not sugar production. When you buy from the produce stand, however, pick a few to use immediately and a few on not-quite-ripe side to ripen naturally on your kitchen shelf. Turn the tomatoes stem-end down to ripen, since the blossom end will mature first and the firm stem end will better support the fruit.

You shouldn’t have to refrigerate unsliced summer tomatoes at all. If you don’t stack them, they’ll keep for several days, and you should eat them at such a pace that they don’t need refrigeration. Remember with every bite you take that autumn will be here all too soon, and winter right behind.

 

 

A Mississippi Pavlova

This past week the web was hopping with a vid of kangaroos frolicking in the snow—not something you see every day—a reminder that while here in Mississippi we’re sick of the heat, down under in New South Wales it’s the dead of winter. This December, when we’re beginning to have our first heavy frosts, people in Australia and New Zealand will be getting ready to celebrate Christmas in balmy sub-tropical breezes. We’ll be making fruitcakes, but they’ll be making pavlovas.

A pavlova is meringue base or shell filled with whipped cream and fruit, a dessert, light as a ballerina, and this patronym is the only thing about the dish that’s agreed upon. Australians claim that it was invented in a hotel in Perth, and any respectable Kiwi will bristle at the thought. Then there are those who will tell you that a pavlova meringue should have a soft center while others insist it should be dried and crisp throughout. Suit yourself.

Meringues have a reputation for being tricky and if you’re clumsy they are. The egg whites mustn’t contain a bit of fat, so make sure no yolk remains, and don’t whip them in a plastic bowl. Bring the whites to room temperature before whipping (use a mixer, trust me on this), and while back in the day humid weather could make a meringue heavy, in air-conditioned homes it’s not a factor. Vinegar or lemon juice helps stabilize the froth, and don’t add sugar until the soft peak stage. See? What’d I tell you? Not tricky at all.

While the Chinese gooseberry—renamed the kiwi fruit by New Zealanders in a brazen attempt at origin status—and passion fruit are “original”, strawberries and blueberries are traditional, but any fruit can be used. Pavlovas can also be made with chocolate and caramels, candies and nuts. We’re getting in the best peaches of the year now, which make a beautiful pavlova.

Preheat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a circle in the middle. parchment paper. For one meringue base, whip four egg whites until the peaks are soft. Gradually add one cup confectioner’s sugar, a spoonful at a time, until the whites are glossy, then gently blend in a teaspoon each vanilla extract and lemon juice and two teaspoons cornstarch. Spoon meringue onto the parchment paper circle. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, leaving a slight depression in the center. Bake for half hour, more if the center feels squishy. Top (or layer) with whipped cream and fruit. Chopped pistachios are a nice touch.

 

 

Play It Again, Boys!

Buried deep in my album is a photograph from the hot summer of 1979, of the boys playing music on a flatbed trailer. We appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, going for the big $100 purse in the band contest on the Oxford square. Old John Bradley is thumping the stand-up bass; Mr. Cragin Knox frails the banjo. Randy Cross, staring off into the flaw- less summer sky, is on rhythm guitar; the immortal L. W. Thomas is playing lead; and I am sawing on the fiddle.

Our faces are solemn masks, the de rigueur expression of the old-time string band. WOOR Radio is flashing us out over the airwaves; the shirt- sleeved judges lean on their elbows; and in the foreground Mr. Jack Cofield himself is snapping our picture as if we were very big dogs indeed. It is a satisfying image, for it fails to mention that we were not big dogs at all but mere dabblers in the music trade. Moreover, it omits the dubious harmonies we sent aloft that day to the old arched windows of city hall.

And to look at it you would never guess, any more than the “bored judges” or the listeners scattered on the green, that our faces-so cool, so self-possessed-are in fact rigid with fear, and in our hearts a secret voice bargains with God to only let us live through this set and we would never, never, never play in public again.

What, then, were we doing there? It was a question we often asked our-selves when the pressure, largely self-induced, was on. It was not really all that bad, playing music-we had our good days, even a triumph now and then. But there was always the suspicion that sooner or later the People Out Front would rise up in their scorn and drive us from the stage. hey never did, of course, and we lurked on the fringes of the business for years.

We were known by picturesque names-The Waterford Road, The Eighth of January, The Horse Stealers. Friends came and went: Uncle Frank Childrey and his Gibson mandolin; Gathal Runnells, a great fiddler; young Les Kerr and Mike Burduck, a fine bass player. We played all around, turning up like rented palms at parties and banquets and wedding receptions, even at wine-and-cheese affairs where our repertoire nearly always clashed with the decor. We worked the Watermelon Festivals in Water Valley, the Faulkner Conferences in Oxford, and Ole Miss pep rallies.

And always there were the taverns: Abbey’s Irish Rose, Cajun Fred’s, The Warehouse; all gone now but lively enough places once upon a time. In the taverns we met all the usual roadhouse foolishness. People grabbed at our microphones and spilled beer on our instruments. Combatants arrived at our feet in a spray of broken glass. It was a rare show that we didn’t get 10 requests for “Rocky Top,” a song we all hated and couldn’t play very well anyway.

But in our travels, we knew also the good bright sun, the faces of friends, pretty girls dancing, free drinks, and the smell of barbecue in the air. It was a colorful pastime, and there was nothing quite like walking into a job with an instrument case and having the public mistake you for a musician.

We fooled them for a long time, though we never amounted to much more than a bunch of boys playing music on a flatbed truck. We had none of the professional apparatus, like matching shirts or our own sound equipment, and our showmanship was… elemental, you might say (“Now it’s time for the boys to innerduce themselves,” L. W. would announce, “and we would turn and nod and shake hands with each other, and sometimes the People would get it and sometimes they wouldn’t.)

Yet in time we gained, to our everlasting astonishment, a following. Not just our girlfriends and cronies, understand, but people we never knew before. To the Ole Miss students we were a novelty beyond words, to the older folks perhaps the half-remembered voice of a simpler time. And in spite of our fears none of them ever seemed to care if we were very slick or not, if we broke strings or forgot the words. All they wanted was a joyful noise, and we could give them that. Through the old songs, we touched something solid and authentic in the heart that all of them could recognize, even if they didn’t know why.

And for ourselves – when we were rolling along and hanging on to the steady thumping of the bass, we were in high cotton indeed. So in the end it was worth it, and if we had to ask what we were doing up there, we need look no further than the music for an answer. We would do it all again, I think. And when the house lights came on for the last time, and the boys closed their cases and went away into the world, they took with them a long memory, and the old songs – to be broken out in the parlor now and then, or suddenly remembered in the ruin of night. And in my album the boys are captured forever, having a bad day but trying to do their best just the same.

We won the $100, by the way-not for being top band in the contest, but for being the only one to sign up. “That’s show biz,” as the feller said. –Howard Bahr