Eloquence and concision are hard to find in academic writers, but Suzanne Marrs achieves it with aplomb in this beautiful passage about Eudora’s gay circle of the ‘30s.
“Though she would join the Junior League in deference to her friends who were already members, Eudora’s interests were rather different and her circle of friends more wide-ranging. Four young men were particularly important to her, and all were iconoclastic sorts. Nash Burger had returned to Jackson from the University of the South and had become a teacher at Central High School, Lehman Engel summered in Jackson while he was studying at Juilliard, Hubert Creekmore was back in residence after attending the Yale School of Drama, and Frank Lyell visited during his summer vacations from Princeton.
During summers of the early thirties, the group gathered frequently at the Welty house to drink and talk and laugh and listen to music—literature and the theater and the New York scene filled their conversations, and they loved hearing both classical music and jazz. They also engaged in activities that Lehman eventually labeled “camp.” When Jackson ladies, for instance, advertised that their night-blooming cereuses would be in flower on a given night and invited one and all to witness the annual bloomings, Eudora and her friends attended.
They went on to name themselves the Night-Blooming Cereus Club and took as their motto a slightly altered line from a Rudy Vallee song: “Don’t take it cereus (sic), Life’s too mysterious.” Years later, in The Golden Apples, Eudora would use the “naked, luminous, complicated flower” as an emblem of life’s beauty and its fragility, and she would have a character repeat what one Jackson lady had said about the cereus bloom, “Tomorrow it’ll look like a wrung chicken’s neck.”
But at the time, none of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club members anticipated such symbolic implications of their activities. For them the cereus was and remained an emblem of good fellowship, of the pleasure imaginative individuals could share if they embraced the world around them.”
We speak of cult musicians or novelists, and while it might seem odd to speak of a food writer that has such a following, Laurie Colwin does, primarily I think because Colwin has one thing that other food writers in this age of kitchen glamour don’t, which is a total lack of pretension.
Colwin, who died in 1992, the year before the Food Network was founded, wrote in an era when food and cooking were still relatively pedestrian topics. Sure, Martha had already spread her elegant wings, Prudhomme was burning up the scene and of course Claiborne, Childe and Beard had lit the way, but Colwin wasn’t a media personality. Far from it; she was a working writer and mother. In addition to her two collections of culinary essays, Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking (1993), which were inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame in 2012, Colwin published eight novels and her work appeared in The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Allure and Playboy.
Colwin doesn’t have a style so much as she does a voice, which some might say is much the same thing, but no: she writes as if she were talking to you across a picnic table or at a bus stop, intimate but breezy, alternately tongue-in-cheek, insistent and certainly droll at times, always warm; somehow when reading her my mind hears her as what the Brits would call “fruity”, though not strained or shrill. “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” is usually cited as a signature piece, but “Kitchen Horrors” is essential, as is “How to Avoid Grilling” and my favorite, “How to Cook Like an American”. Colwin writes a great deal about how to (and not to) cook for children and the infirm, how to feed a multitude with grace under pressure but above all how much of our lives revolve around the things we see, touch, hear and eat every day.
Colwin’s fans constitute a cult in that they are devoted to her writing as a source of discovery as well as comfort, and acknowledge self-effacement as a virtue in those who know their craft and practice it with modest aplomb.
Yes, folks, for a mere $9,000 bucks you can buy a blues marker, which will place your patch of ground on the Blues Trail and attract those hypothetical hordes of tourists who come to Mississippi in search of musical roots. The criteria for acquiring a blues marker are delineated by the Mississippi Blues Commission in an online document that mentions the eligibility of people, places and events, specific locations (buildings, streets, highways, crossroads), themes (nightclubs and other venues, cotton agriculture, railroads), and there’s even a bit about out-of-state markers (!), but the bottom line explicitly spelled out in the second paragraph is a contract between the Blues Commission and the LGU (Local Government Unit) requiring the LGU to pay $9,000 for the marker, which guarantees its inclusion on collateral material associated with the Blues Trail such as the Commission’s website and publishing. Where this money goes is anyone’s guess, and a significant return on your investment in terms of tourist dollars is a remote possibility indeed.
Very few people would consider Calhoun County a focal point for blues music, so it might come as a surprise to some that Bruce is about to become a site on Mississippi’s celebrated Blues Trail. The musical heritage of Calhoun County, Mississippi is varied, encompassing bluegrass, country, gospel and rockabilly; the area is also well-known for its sacred harp singing. The blues certainly has its place in any roster of the area’s music, but it’s way down the list. The marker, “Calhoun County Blues”, will be unveiled on Oct. 8 at 1p at the Bruce Company Store. Local music artist Leo “Bud” Welch will be honored. I have it on good authority that the marker will also mention Ace Cannon, who is not, strictly speaking, a blues musician, and while it’s unclear if any other Calhoun music will be mentioned, the omission of our sacred harp tradition would be a grievous error compounding what is already a totally superfluous travesty.
T.J. Ray’s story of the hanging of Mathis and Lester is one of those books you read and come away thinking, “Wow, that would make a damn good movie.” And it would. Death as the circumscription of all human activity is also the Great Equalizer, uniting men of all stripes, but the hanging of Will and Orlando brought fate and justice together in a jagged gray crescendo. Fashioning a screenplay for Side by Side would be aided and enhanced by Dr. Ray’s meticulous research, his informative narration that moves us through the court speeches with appropriate dispatch, his accounts of media coverage that enhance the drama now as it did then and his descriptions of Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties that set a sordid Yoknapatawphan stage for what ultimately is a squalid incidence of multiple murder.
At the turn of the last century, north Mississippi was still for the most part a wilderness, little more than a network of villages and towns strung together along dirt and gravel roads, traveled by or with a horse, united only in proximity. The scars of the Civil War ran deep, and the adjusted system of laws in the newly-Reconstructed state were little more than the legal ramifications of military defeat. Yet the state was growing, law had to be enforced and the cases of Will Mathis and Orlando Lester, grisly in detail, profound in ramifications, proved in to be a public circus ending in a lethal trapeze. Side by Side is as much about race than it is of the reestablishment of justice in the South, an ongoing trial if there ever was one.