My dad and my brother played guitar, but I didn’t start playing until I was a senior at Millsaps, when I was doing an honors thesis that was driving me crazy. I was a huge music fan, but I’d never played anything. I was also writing things like any silly English major in college taking creative writing classes. I’d always liked music as much as or more than I did literature, and songs are easier to write than novels.
I grew up in Mobile, where my oldest and best friend, Will Kimbrough was a professional player, an original song-writing guy from the age of 16 on, an unbelievable record freak. And he was touring! He was our conduit for stuff like The Clash and The Jam; not as much punk as sort of punkish rock-and-roll. Not that I’d call The Clash punk; to me they’re the greatest rock-and-roll band ever. We were lucky there because one guy could change the field.
I’d been in a punk band in Mobile, “Joe Strange”, and I wrote songs then. We weren’t bad; we were okay. But I started playing on stage again when I was in school in Oxford. Law school was so boring, and I was around people who were so incredibly different from me. I was seven years older than most of them, for one thing, and they were all a bunch of Republican yuppies, who with a few exceptions just bored the shit out of me. So I hung out with the quirkier people in Oxford, and I think I wound up there for a reason.
I started writing songs because I knew I was never going to be a hot-shot guitar player; I couldn’t play “Stairway to Heaven”. I knew I was never going to be in a band because I was a great this or that, and I wasn’t going to be just another white dude playing in a blues band, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to play “Mustang Sally”. I didn’t want to be hustling money for playing stuff that I had no business playing, so I didn’t, and for better or worse, this is what I started doing.
When I turned 30 my good friend Eileen Wallace sent me a book she made: she’d made everything, the binding, the paper, the cover. I started writing things in that, and I’ve never stopped. And I’ll tell you, the voice memo function on an iPhone has changed the way I write songs. Now if I’m doing something else, something boring, just driving, or maybe watching a game, I can hit the voice memo, and mumble some stuff, and keep it to work on later. It helps. You know how this is as a writer; it comes, and you only catch a tiny portion of it in the net. My favorite songwriter, Richard Thompson, carries a notebook with him everywhere. It just ups the odds of not losing something important.
When I’m writing songs just for me, as opposed as to for a band or someone else, I always tell myself they have to be okay just to play on an acoustic in front of people. Maybe that’s folk music; I don’t know. If they work like that, it’s okay because a lot of the time when I’m playing, it’s solo. I like to perform; it’s thrilling to play solo, but it’s kind of scary. I mean, it’s just you out there on the tightrope. It’s easier for me to play in front of 100 people I’ve never met than in front of 10 people I know. Denny Burkes is the best musician I know, so if I’m playing in front of Denny, it’s different. It’s like reading some of your stuff at a writer’s workshop instead of reading to a bunch of students. But I like it.
I can’t sing too great, I’m an okay guitar player; nobody’s going to ask me to be a singer in their band. The reason I play and sing is so that I can do my songs. I think once you find the way you get stuff out, if you find it, whether it’s building model planes or whatever, you’re lucky. I’m lucky in that I can write for myself; I don’t have to please anybody else. I don’t have a record executive breathing down my neck, so I can write whatever I want whenever I want. I think music is moving more away from a business and more into an avocation because anyone can make a record now, and hardly anyone can make any money because it’s all free. In a weird way, it’s going back to what it was like for people in the early 20th century when on Saturday nights people played music and traded songs just for the art, for the fun of it. That’s why I do it; I’ve made hundreds of dollars!
I’ve put out two albums. Neilson Hubbard produced the first two; Will Kimbrough will produce the next one. When I get into conversations over what I’m going to do, I always have people who’ll tell me, ‘Well, you need to market yourself; you need to do this, you need to do that …’ and I keep thinking, ‘Okay, why? So I can do what?’ Right now it makes me incredibly happy that I have people covering my songs; I can’t get a bigger compliment. I’ve gotten weird reviews from places like Holland and Belgium, but I think most of that is people see you’re from Mississippi, and they’re like ‘Yeah, yeah, Mississippi!’
I have some songs I’ve been working on for years. “Her Grief is a Man” came easily, out of a difficult situation. Some songs are from personal experience, some are just flat-out, straight-up fiction. I don’t know how that happens. I’ll be on a run, say, and the cadence of the run determines the meter of the song; it just starts. A lot of them start on the guitar. Inspiration is fleeting, but you can up the odds by picking up the guitar and playing one every now and then. You’ve got to work a little bit. If someone covers one of my songs and sends me a bunch of money, great; I’ve had some calls about songs being placed on television, and that hasn’t happened yet, but if it does, it’s great. I do want to make records, and it’s driving me crazy that I’ve not put one out in five years. I love “Leaves of Tennessee” and I have a few more I like very much in this batch. By my standards, it’s going to be a very good record, but it costs money and takes time, and I’ve had things to happen in my life which have made finding the money and time to make a record a relatively low priority.
My daughter, who is the best critic I have. She’ll come in, and I’ll be playing something, and she’ll ask, ‘Is that yours?’ ‘Yes,’ I’ll say, and usually she’ll go something like, ‘Meh,’ but the other day, I’ve got a new one that I just finished, and I heard her humming the chorus. And that’s when you know that it’s a hit; a hit is a hit, whether it hits your house or hits the world. People respond to a good song. What I think is my best stuff, some people don’t. There’s a song of mine called “Levee” that I thought was pretty good; I was trying to write something different, a two-step, and I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
What I hope that means is that the more I write, the higher the bar is raised and that my weaker songs in the next batch will be better on average. And that’s a great thing.
As incredulous 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 a few 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.
The name beneath this recipe from Jackson’s New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote, Hodding Carter, and other local literati.
According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time. She won the bet by writing A Family’s Affairs (1962), which is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.
Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.
Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)
A writer, a scholar and an artist as well as the first and foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great who remains shadowed today. A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto, with horns, drums, and songs. His Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz stands loud, proud and without a smidgen of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, written with the same gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts as fully, but as his fellow Mississippian, Creole Gumbo strikes much closer to my heart.
Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times. His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his eloquence on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seems to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”
James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on June 11, 1917. His father, a house painter, died when he was a year old. His mother moved to Vicksburg to find work, leaving the infant Howard with her parents on their watermelon farm on Sawmill Road. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis. For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherence. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”
Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. A May 30, 1934 clipping from “The Pica”, the GHS school newspaper, includes a column by Mitcham (“Rigmarole”) and three poems by Foote. A news article in the same issue notes: “Walker Percy, freshman at the University of North Carolina and member of last year’s graduating class, will journey to Germany for a three months’ tour of that country,” adding that “the tour will be made on foot and on bycicles (sic)”. After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University. As an art student at LSU in 1940, Mitcham came to the attention of the Baton Rouge Advocate for befriending a Negro janitor on campus, Felton Coleman, who according to the newspaper article Mitcham “forced” to paint. Reading the account of this incident is almost painful, since it is most likely from our perspective that little coercion was involved at all. Instead, Coleman probably expressed an interest in painting while he was sweeping a studio, and Mitcham, far from ordering him to paint, instead gave Coleman a canvas and paint to take home to his “cabin”, where he soon “spent his evenings . . . painting by the light of a kerosene lamp, intent neighbors (crowding) at his elbows.” A year later, one of Coleman’s paintings, the “brilliantly-colored and strongly composed ‘Baptism’, appeared by invitation at the annual exhibition of Louisiana artists at the capitol.” (The painting is now on permanent exhibit at LSU.) “Coleman can be the greatest artist of his race, at least in the South,” Mitcham is quoted as saying. “It’s a pity that the opportunities to learn are not in the reach of more of his people. They all have talent. Painting gives them a way to express themselves, and they’ve got a great deal to say.” It’s worth noting that to advocate more education for blacks in the South in the 40s was progressive, if not radical.
At some point in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery. During this time, he became the model for “the stone deaf man” in Marguerite Young’s epic work, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Sabina said that during Mitcham’s days in New York, Walker Percy would come to stay with him, often sleeping on the floor in Mitcham’s tiny apartment in the Village.
A little over a decade later, Mitcham’s support for civil rights was confirmed in another medium. Among the papers of Dr. James Silver at the University of Mississippi is a letter from Mitcham to Silver dated 1956 written in a strong articulate script thanking him for a letter and clipping from “the Jackson, Tenn. newspaper” and his vigorous support of Silver’s stance against a closed society. “You have certainly flung down the gauntlet in a manner that was badly needed,” Mitcham wrote. “I only hope you don’t get a potsherd in the urn with your name on it. To defend freedom of thought and expression in Mississippi these days is almost suicidal, they’re more afraid of truth than any other one thing, just can’t afford to face it, or the house of cards will fall down.” The year before, Howard received a letter from Faulkner thanking him for a painting.
Dear Mitcham, The picture is here. It was all right, not bent but arch-ed a little but the paint did not crack. I flattened it with careful pressure, am trying to get a frame, something solid behind it. I will let the Buie people hang it for a while if they wish. I like it. I have it propped in a chair at eyelevel across the room from my typewriter where I can look up at now and then. I don’t know where rumor of illness came from. It’s not mine though. I had measles and such as a child but nothing since. Thank you for condolence though, and many thanks for the painting. I like plenty of dense color. Yours sincerely Faulkner
It’s not known if the painting ever did hang in the Buie Museum, but it is still at Rowan Oak. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, pointing out the date as well as the elements of the painting (a Tokyo newspaper, a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a pipe) said, “Mitcham probably painted this to mark the publication of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches by Hokuseido Press in Japan on April 1. Faulkner also traveled to Japan that August on a goodwill tour.”
Mitcham’s first book, Fishing on the Gulf Coast, was published by Hermit Crab Press in 1959. “I don’t know much about fishing,” Mitcham confesses in his preface, but that doesn’t stop him from offering instructions on how to catch dozens of fresh and salt water species using methods anyone on the Gulf would use now. But Fishing on the Gulf Coast, in the final analysis, is a cookbook, Mitcham’s first, and it establishes his life-long love for seafood. Fishing includes many recipes you’ll find in later works (bouillabaisse, court bouillon, pompano en papillote and, of course a gumbo, in this instance from Antoine’s, no less). While the recipes are elaborate (and nowadays quite expensive to make), they’re easy to follow; they make perfect sense to anyone from south of I-10, with procedures for such things as smoking mullet (much beer-drinking seems to be involved) and incredibly detailed maps of the Gulf Coast along Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle.
What makes Fishing on the Gulf Coast even more of a treasure are Mitcham’s beautiful woodcut prints of fish and marine life. Art (along with a passion for antique clocks and clockworks) provided Mitcham with a fruitful outlet for his talents throughout his life. The 1963 summer and winter issues of The Carolina Quarterly featured two portfolios with six of his woodcuts prints. Like his fellow Mississippi artist Walter Anderson, who also made woodcut prints, much of Mitcham’s work reflects a strong interest in classical mythology. This is nowhere more evident than in his Four Tales from Byzantium (Wattle Grove Press: 1964). Incredulously enough, Wattle Grove Press was a small publishing house founded in Launceston,Tasmania by Professor Rolf Hennequel in 1958. According to a pamphlet issued by the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery in Launceston, Hennequel stated that the purpose of the press was “. . . for printing unusual literature, which could not possibly be launched commercially. This was—and is—our only purpose, which also includes the desire to help young writers.” How Mitcham connected with this small, progressive press in a part of the world that could be considered almost the antipodes of Mississippi is an as-yet unfathomable mystery. Somewhat later, the book was re-issued by Hermit Crab Press in New Orleans.
The quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown. An editor of The Provincetown Advocate described Mitcham as “Artist, block print maker, chef par excellence, pro-beatnik, draughtsman and one of the most talented ‘nuts’ ever to come into Provincetown.” Mitcham maintained an art gallery on the Cape, painted signs and repaired clocks (one correspondent claims he published an article on antique clocks in Gentleman’s Quarterly). In the 1960s, Mitcham wrote a column in the Advocate called the “The Cape Tip Gourmet” and another called “The Cape Curmudgeon”. He wrote that the first place he headed when he first arrived in Provincetown, and most likely from then on, was Town Wharf. “It made my heart jump to see the enormous hauls of herring that the trap boats were bringing in,” Mitcham said. “But my gourmet’s heart was broken when I found out that this wonderful fish was being knocked down for two bucks and fifty cents a barrel and shipped off to the cat food factory.”
His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1976 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. Bourdain, who worked in Provincetown during the mid-1970s when he was attending (of all places) Vassar, knew Mitcham and in his Kitchen Confidential writes that “Howard was the sole ‘name chef’ in town.”
“To us, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues,” Bourdain wrote. “He could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen’s bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly (he liked to sing as well). Though drunk most of the time and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman of Cape cod cookery, a respected chef of a very busy restaurant and the author of two very highly regarded cookbooks: The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook and Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz—two volumes I still refer to, and which were hugely influential for me and my budding culinary peers of the time. He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer’s gut and he wore the short-sleeved-snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for the humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.”
“We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook. Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”
In Provincetown, Mitcham bonded strongly with the local Portuguese community, where he made many deep and lasting friendships and his love for them shines from his works. In Fishing on the Gulf Coast, Mitcham claims he contacted the Portuguese Embassy to obtain a recipe, and The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook contains many, many more. “Transplanting the Azores Islanders to Provincetown was a great step forward because they brought with them their beautifully rambunctious cookery, and this husky, euphoric cuisine has quietly worked its way into Cape Cod and New England cookery in general,” he wrote. “I have been observing Portuguese cooks for twenty-five years, and I find that they have the following relative units of measurement: (1) a little, (2) some, (3) a bit more, (4) a lot, (5) plenty, (6) enough.”
Mitcham’s best-known work in my part of the world is Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), arguably the most embracive and best-written book about the food and people of southern Louisiana. The exuberance of this work needs many readings to encompass. In Creole Gumbo, Mitcham celebrates his love for the kaleidoscopic, carefree world of the Crescent City: its food, its history and, astoundingly, its music. Reading Creole Gumbo, you discover Mitcham the bohemian, a Falstaff in the French Quarter, ebullient in his adoration for life and the bounty of the waters. Creole Gumbo could well serve as a textbook for New Orleans cuisine, since it not only includes the most recognized dishes of the city with authoritative recipes usually garnered from reliable sources but more so, it places the foods of the city within the demographics that shaped them. Like any knowledgeable writer on the subject — Paul Prudhomme, for instance — Mitcham takes great pains to distinguish between Creole and Cajun, two distinct populations often erroneously lumped together by less astute writers and epicures. He also describes other people that combined in the great cauldron: the native Choctaws, the immigrant French, Spanish, Albanian, Sicilian, Chinese and Filipino. Mitcham also offers a “Short Biography of a Creole Building”, that being the Skyscraper on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, where he lived with his friends, artists Johnny Donnels and Maggi Hartnett, noting that the building was also home to Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner during the 1920s and the site of jam sessions by legendary jazz artists like Kid Thomas, George Lewis, Percy Humphries and Lewis Nelson. Mitcham had an apartment in the 600 block of St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. His longtime friend, photographer Johnny Donnels, lived on the floor below, and on the efficiency stove in Donnels’ apartment was where Mitcham tested his recipes. “If it didn’t kill anybody or make anybody sick,” Donnels said, “we put it in the book.”
In her Sept. 12, 1979 article in The New York Times, “A Library of Creole-Cajun Cooking”, Mimi Sheraton said that Creole Gumbo is “a delightful book with excellent recipes for the gumbo, jambalaya, crab, shrimp, crawfish and other seafood dishes that distinguish both the Creole and Cajun kitchens.” She praises Mitcham’s “beautifully simple recipe for the pungent barbecued shrimp of the type made at Pascal’s Manale restaurant and some unusual folklore dishes such as the Chimney Sweep’s shrimp boil that Mitcham and his Guild of Chimney Sweepers (named in honor of a dinner that Charles Lamb hosted for the London sweeps) hosted yearly for French Quarter bohemians during the 1950s and 1960s.”
“At our last big party we boiled 400 pounds of shrimp and 400 fat crabs for 200 guests and we drank eight thirty-gallon kegs of beer,” Mitcham said. “For music we had Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers, the famous old gut-bucket jazz group from Preservation Hall, and the Olympia Funeral Marching Band”.
Sheraton notes that Creole Gumbo, like its predecessor The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, deals (almost) exclusively with seafood, for which Mitcham had an avowed and lifelong passion, but it’s worth pointing out that with few exceptions (bananas Foster springs to mind) the recipes we associate most with New Orleans are seafood-based: trout amandine meuniere, oysters Rockefeller, seafood gumbo, pompano en papillote, the aforementioned barbecued shrimp (which, it must be said, resembles no other type of Southern barbecue) and many others. This emphasis on seafood provides a convenient point for a brief comparison with The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. Two points must be emphasized: first, that one city sits on the edge of the North Atlantic, the other at the mouth of the Mississippi River; secondly, the ethnic make-up of places, New Orleans a hodge-podge of race and nationalities, Provincetown a New England enclave with an important Portuguese community. Geography plays an important role in the types of seafood used. Recipes for clams of all sorts and the fish of the North Atlantic (cod, haddock, bluefish, etc.) dominate the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, while the emphasis in Creole Gumbo is on oysters, shrimp and such fish that thrive in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico (redfish, snapper, speckled trout, etc.) as well as the denizens of the fresh and brackish water environments along the Gulf: alligators, snapping turtles and catfish.
In 1981, The Hermit Crab Press published Maya O Maya! Rambunctious Fables of Yucatan. According to a synopsis by Creighton University, which owns one of the 500 published copies, the book is “a collection of humorous parodies of ancient lore about gods, statues, and rites. The first, ‘The World’s Strongest Cocktail,’ presents Ixnib, the god who invented the drink balche. The woodcut figures are reminiscent of Mayan statues in museums.”
Mitcham’s final, and in many ways his most personal book, is Clams, Mussels, Oysters, Scallops, and Snails: A Cookbook and a Memoir (1990). Were we to judge by this book alone we might well concur that Mitcham’s favorite food among all the denizens of the sea is the clam, since well over half the book is a paean to this bivalve mollusk, it’s biology, its history as a foodstuff (particularly in New England) and recipes from all over the world. Mitcham delves into the American “Chowder War” (New York/Long Island tomatoes vs “Yankee”—New England—cream) and of course offers several Portuguese recipes. In addition, somewhat surprisingly to me because the idea of Mitcham as riveted to a New Orleans/Provincetown axis, he reveals himself as a far-ranging traveler, journeying not only to Portugal itself, but to southern Spain, the Pacific Northwest, Philadelphia and Chicago. He also introduces a cadre of chefs who were very much his fellow celebrities in the culinary world of his day: Joseph Poon, Louis Szathmary and Jeff Smith, among others. Many of his recipes for oysters are repeated from Creole Gumbo, which given their excellence is quite excusable, and he covers scallops, periwinkles and moon snails deftly and with expertise. As always, Mitcham’s style is light, breezy and wry, a delight to read. It’s in this book we also come to know many of the people who make up his world, an off-beat collection of people who clustered around Howard as the cynosure of a starry sky.
Mitcham shared his days between New Orleans and Provincetown, where he worked in local restaurants. He also became very much a fixture in the town; Jan Kelly, who wrote a food column for The Provincetown Advocate with Mitcham for years, described him as “brilliant, a great art lover and so well-read that there wasn’t a literary or mythical reference that he didn’t know. He was an absolute genius, terribly complicated at times, but never boring.” Mitcham died at the age of 79 on August 22, 1996, at Cape Cod Hospital. Mitcham once told Donnels he’d like to be buried in a Truro, Mass., cemetery beside an old clam digger friend of his, but at another time Donnels said, “We were sitting in Pat O’Brien’s, and he said if ever he died, he would like to be cremated and have his ashes scattered through the ventilating fan of the ladies room there.” Mitcham’s ashes were spread over the ocean off Cape Cod.
Jack’s Skillet: Plain Talk and Some Recipes from a Guy in the Kitchen (Algonquin, 1997),is by Jack Butler, who isn’t just some guy, but a poet and novelist. He was born in Alligator, Mississippi, to a son of Delta gentry who sought the cloth. He attended high school in Clinton, Mississippi, was ordained in Missouri, and earned an MFA from UA (Fayetteville) in 1979.
Butler’s first novel, Jujitsu for Christ (August House, 1986), told the story of a young man who opens a martial arts school in Jackson, Mississippi. His third book, Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock (Knopf, 1993), employs collage, newspaper excerpts, cartoon reprints, and an omniscient narrator who claims to be either the Holy Ghost or a deceased dog. The novel received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote a food column for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (His 1993 short story collection, Hawk Gumbo, is not a cookbook, but it’s good stuff!).
In Jack’s Skillet, Butler writes about food as pleasure, as ritual, as communication, “satisfaction, the giving and receiving of sustenance and delight.”
“I’m a cook, and I can’t help thinking about food. I’m a novelist, and I can’t help telling stories, I’m a poet, and I can’t help singing out from time to time, As a result, you should think of this book as a story, a story with occasional bursts of paean and dithyramb. The story is the story of our lives with food. I say our.”
“Stories have characters, and this one is no exception. I can’t write about food without writing about people. Stories also have settings and backgrounds. I spent roughly the first twenty years of my life in Mississippi, mostly in the cotton-growing Delta. Then I spent twenty-five or so in Arkansas. You are what you eat, and all my life I’ve eaten Southern. But sort of nouvelle Southern, with pluralistic influences. Semi-enlightened good old boy, you might say.”
“I can’t imagine writing about food and not at some point talking about the absolute best breakfast on earth, which is not, I’m sorry to say, garlic-and-cheese grits, or even pork chops, scrambled eggs, and hot biscuits with strawberry preserves, but novy mit a schmeer-a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese and layered with capers, thin slices of smoked Nova Scotia salmon, tomato, and onion.”
Jack’s Skillet includes such pearls as “Tomato Gravy and Biscuits,” “Mosey Froghead’s Barbecue Sauce,” “A Southerner’s First Meal in Heaven,” “A Grace for the Old Man,” and this nugget:
How to Get Rid of Beer
I’m not a heavy-duty beer drinker. I like stout, and I like Alaskan amber. Which, incidentally, as I found out on my last trip to Alaska, is what they now call the beer formerly known as Chinook. I spent half a week in Fairbanks asking after Chinook and not finding it before anybody bothered to straighten me out. Seems somebody decided that reminding the thirsty customer of the smell of dead fish just at the point of purchase wasn’t all that grand a marketing strategy. Maybe not. The beer’s just as good, either way.
I do like a snappingly cold brewski or two after a long hike or a hot game in the summertime, but I will never park in front of the tube and start in on a sixpack.
Nevertheless, we always seem to have extra beer around the house, lots of extra beer. Usually several different brands. Lately it’s been Pearl Light and Miller Ice Draft. I can, by the way, recommend Pearl Light as an excellent swimming-pool beer for those 100° Arkansas or Carolina or even Connecticut July days. Only seventy calories a can, and it tastes pretty good. I mean really, I’m not kidding, it tastes pretty good. For American beer.
Anyway, what happens is that we have a party or have some people over, so we go out and buy some beer, and then the people bring their own beer, and then everybody winds up drinking white wine or gets into my Wild Turkey while I’m not looking.
So then we have a refrigerator full of beer. It stays full for months and months while I try to figure out ways to get rid of it. And that’s our situation right now.
I can manage a can or two a month myself, if I decide to have boilermakers for a change, but that’s about all, especially during the winter. Clearly, then, I am in need of alternatives. Lately I’ve been experimenting with beer batter. I like batter-fried things. The greasier the better. Grease is good for you, after all. _ And it’s fun to play around with different sorts of batter. I grew up on cornmeal batter and egg batter, though mostly when I do steak fingers or catfish or fried chicken nowadays, as I’ve told you, I just salt, pepper, flour, and fry.
Beer batter is completely different.
The recipe I use is simplicity itself. (I want to caution you that there’s nothing official about this recipe. This is not, repeat not, authentic beer batter.) I put white flour in a bowl, the amount depending on how much batter I think I’m going to need. I sprinkle in some salt according to how salty I think I’m going to want the batter to taste. I cut in some butter or margarine in the ratio of roughly a tablespoon to a cup of flour. I add cold beer, stirring until I have a nice thick batter-liquid, but dense and clinging. I drink the rest of the beer.
Beer batter comes out a lot like tempura, which means it isn’t suitable for just anything. I’ve tried it out on all sorts of things recently, even catfish and chicken livers. On the whole, I don’t think I’d recommend it for most meats, though the chicken livers were just fine hot from the skillet. Jayme liked the catfish, but I had some reservations. My thought is that it would work better for extremely firm-fleshed seafoods, like shrimp and, hm, ah, shrimp.
And vegetables. Beer batter is really great for those deep-fried happy-hour veggie-type gnoshes. It works great for mushrooms, which are almost impossible to get any other sort of batter to stick to. It would, I am sure, if you can bear the concept, work great for nuggets of cauliflower or broccoli, or for dill pickles. It is supreme for onion rings, which I dearly love, and of which good ones are mighty hard to get.
What I do is flour my fryees- the rings, the mushrooms, whatever. Just shake them in a bag with flour, dip them in the batter, drop them in hot oil in a deep fryer, get them golden brown all over, and drain them (beer batter holds a lot of oil).
Then you can sit down with your crunchy munchies and tune in to see what the score of the game is, and whether Mike Piazza has hit any more home runs.
And what the hey, maybe even have a cold beer with your meal. It would be appropriate, and you’d be getting rid of two of the cotton-picking things in one evening.
Beer-Batter Onion Rings
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 small onion, cut into 14″-thick rings
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
6 to 8 ounces beer
Cooking oil for deep-frying
Mix flour and salt. Put flour mixture into a paper bag. Throw in onion rings and shake, then set aside. They should be only lightly coated. Transfer flour to a mixing bowl and cut in butter. Add beer gradually, stirring until batter thickens. Heat cooking oil in a deep fryer (a high-walled skillet will do). The oil is hot enough for frying when water dripped onto the oil pops and sizzles. Coat onion rings thoroughly with batter and drop into oil. Fry until golden brown all over, then remove to paper and drain. This batter will also serve as a fine tempura-style batter for a wide range of vegetables.
This absolute gem of a story by Jeff Weddle, a man of many parts, but a poet at heart, was inspired by true events. It’s the lead item in his brilliant collection, When Giraffes Flew (SYP; Tallahassee, 2015).
You’re ten years old the day the chickens explode. What could possibly prepare you for this? You’re in the living room watching TV, and you hear the bang out in the yard, and you run to the door. A pickup truck is turned over beside a broken elm tree, and there are chicken crates everywhere and chickens all over the yard. Some of the chickens look dead already, but others are screaming and running around flapping their wings. Poochie and Smoke appear from somewhere out back and lay in on the chickens. They bite the heads and sling the bodies, both just the same, as if they had been taught to do this. They kill the birds and eat their fill, then kill more and leave them lying dead on the lawn.
“Mama,” you scream, but she’s not there. She’s visiting her sister in town, and you’re in the house alone-just you and the wrecked truck in the yard and all those chickens. Dead chickens, dying chickens, chickens being murdered by the dogs. The scene is horrible. Poochie and Smoke fight over a small bird. Poochie has it by the head and Smoke has a wing. The wing rips off, and Poochie backs away, growling.
“Mama,” you scream again.
The driver is still in the truck, but you don’t know this. You don’t even think about him. All you can think about is the chickens in your front yard.
You don’t know how long it is before you think to call somebody. You call your mother at your aunt’s house and tell her what’s happening.
“Calm down,” she says. “Talk slow. Tell me what’s the matter.”
Where do you start? What can you tell her?
“Feathers,” you say. “There are all these feathers. The yard is filled with them.”
But that’s all you can think to say. After a while, she stops trying to get the story, and says she’s coming right home. You hang up but don’t dare walk back to the door. Instead, you go back and stare at the television. You turn up the sound so you can’t hear what’s going on outside.
The front door opens. There’s a man standing there, a man you don’t know. He’s bloody and feathers are stuck all over him. He looks like a big, awful rooster. He stands there in your front room for a second then dips over and slides against the wall, all the way to the floor. There’s a wide trail of blood where he slides. You realize this isn’t good.
This is the driver. He’s a farmer from out in the county, and he was on his way to sell his chickens in town. Now he’s had a bad experience in your yard, and his chickens are mostly beyond salvage. Now he’s lying on your living room floor bleeding to death, feathers stuck all over his body. Now you have to deal with him.
But of course you can’t. There’s nothing to do but sit where you are and wait. The noise outside has quieted to the din of a few dozen chickens clucking and squawking. The dogs have followed the man into the house. This is the biggest chicken of them all, and they each know they must have him. Smoke wises up and latches onto his head, just above the cheek, and locks her jaw tight. Poochie has a shoulder. They try their best to sling him around and kill him, but he weighs too much. They growl and jerk, but it’s no good.
You run over and kick the dogs away, but they are crazed with blood. For a moment it looks like they’re going to jump on you, but they don’t; they want the big chicken and nothing is going to keep them from having it.
By the time your mother arrives it’s all over. The man’s face and arm are chewed to pieces. He’s on the floor, dead-blood and feathers stuck all over the floor and walls.
Your mother doesn’t know what to make of any of this. You think she’ll scream or faint, but what she does is scoop you up and run into the bathroom and lock the door.
“Are you okay?” she yells at you. “Are you okay?”
There is no way to answer this question. You sit on her lap and shake your head back and forth, but you don’t know what you’re doing.
A week later, things are mostly back to normal. The truck has been towed away and most of the feathers are gone from the yard. The front room is immaculate. The broken elm tree has been removed. A man from the sheriff’s office has come and taken Smoke and Poochie away. You cried over the dogs.
When the deputy came for them, you tried to keep him away, but you’ve learned now, there’s no fighting a man with a badge and a gun.
Your mother hasn’t left your side in seven days.
“Mama,” you tell her, the chicken man can’t hurt us anymore.”
She smiles the tiniest bit, but you know she believes something different. From now on, every so often, the yard will yield a host of bones.
If there is anything in the world you miss more than your dogs, you don’t want to think of it. At night, now, you wonder about all that road out there. There must be more trucks heading your way, and maybe chickens aren’t the worst of it. It’s hard to imagine this might be true, but something tells you to believe it.
Eudora Welty told me when I was doing her portrait bust and we were talking about where the creative muse comes from that she was just a listener. If you sit in a restaurant or go to a football game or sit in a mall and listen to a conversation, there are stories there, stories all around you. For me, those types of experiences lead to visual art; sometimes it’s portraying a particular individual, or it may be something about that individual that prompts me to carry it to an image.
The subject doesn’t always tell me that it’s a piece of sculpture or a watercolor. It’s more the emotion of it and how I’m going to get it out. But I usually start everything with loose sketches, on a napkin in a restaurant or on the back of a medical chart. Sometimes it’s a study in words; when I did the Civil War sculpture in Vicksburg, I probably wrote forty or fifty pages of text about what I thought that piece was about before I put anything into a form that someone could look at. It informed what the piece eventually became.
I grew up on a dirt road in Scott County and started studying physiology and human anatomy in college, which appealed to the artist inside me. I was already doing art. In 1976, when I was a senior in high school, a buddy of mine was working for a publishing company as a salesman. He had a big tabletop book of paintings and studies by an artist named Andrew Wyeth. It just set me on my ear. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But it wasn’t how did he do that; my question was why did he do it and what was he trying to tell?
It took me a lifetime to work through the process of reading and studying and looking at the images, trying to figure out what he was doing and mostly learning that he was expressing emotional content through a visible image. Wyeth might have done a painting of a deer hanging by a chain from a limb at Keurner’s house, but really, for him, it was about Keurner fighting in World War I and using a rifle to kill people. Keurner had told him about shooting humans and seeing human blood spilled. So there were these different meanings to paintings that looked like one thing to somebody but something else to the artist.”
That really intrigued me because I’ve got a lot of stuff inside that I want to get out. There are some things that are appropriate to create, and other things that are a little bit hard to create. How do you communicate human loss? How do you communicate loneliness? How do you communicate trauma in childhood? How do you get those things out? Well, for me it came out in things like a portrait of Uncle Bennie sitting in a rocking chair that meant all sorts of personal things to me.
I was really surprised to find out that when other people saw my work, if it was good enough, it took them to somewhere in their own life. It prompted them to think of something completely different than what I was thinking, but they would look at it and were moved by it.
This is a scanned copy of an 11×14″ red glass ambrotype I made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in Calhoun County in April of 2012. I had been staying in Bruce at my parent’s and decided to go up to Poplar Springs where my great-grandparents (Starling Monroe and Nancy Ruth) are buried..
When I go somewhere to photograph I sort of have something in mind but it has to feel right or speak to me for me to actually make a wet collodion photograph. I may shoot some snapshots on film or take some documentary shots of things I am recording over time but for the plates it has to be that feeling; that feeling of time and place, of past and present of connection. After walking around the cemetery for a long while, reading the gravestones and making a few snapshots with a hand-held camera I decided I would not set up the wet collodion. I got in the car to back out of the cemetery entrance for some reason instead of driving through. That is when I saw this image. It hit me: there it was the old fence I had noticed and not noticed my entire life of visiting there. I could see my relatives’ gravestones in the background but what grabbed me was the fence, the plants, the foliage: that feeling.
I pulled back in and proceeded to set up the portable darkbox, get the chemicals ready and mount the camera on the tripod. In about 30 minutes I was looking through the camera’s ground glass at this image. In another 15 minutes I was washing the chemicals from the glass and feeling good about the plate. In 2014 the cemetery caretakers in their infinite wisdom of cleaning up have totally removed the fence and cleaned the bank off, forever destroying some of the visual reminders of 50 plus years of visiting this cemetery.
Nothing lasts forever; that is one of the reasons I photograph. This plate is not for sale.
I call myself a painter; I paint, so I’m a painter. A teacher of mine, William Baggett, said, “Too many students call themselves artists, and they’re not artists; they’re students.” That stuck with me. I’m still learning, so I’m a student too, and I never want to get past that.
At USM, Jim Meade became my mentor. Meade steered us towards the formality of composition. He would talk about the Golden Mean, the Golden Rectangle, the Fibonacci sequence, and how all those tied into aesthetics. We would draw forms and divide them up, explore the geometry of formats just to get us geared into recognizing that this is the way things can be arranged so that your brain knows it’s there, even though it’s not drawn out. It was so boring! I often thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I came here to become a good artist and to find something that nobody’s ever done before and become famous; that’s why I’m here!’ But it ended up becoming a completely different experience.
The first class I took I failed. The teacher said that I could render things okay, but that I didn’t know anything about drawing. At that point I realized that I either had to dump all my preconceived ideas about art and begin learning, or I’d have to find something else to do, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. I’d just gotten out of the military, I was 24, one of the “old guys” in the class. And these young kids were, well, drawing circles around me. I had to humble myself, tell myself that I had to learn, and if I want to discard it, I’d discard it. So we did gesture drawing, weight drawing, blind contour, taking the works of Renaissance painters, placing tracing paper on top and finding how they lined up their compositions, learning from masters of their art. When we were given more freedom to start making decisions, form was so ingrained it was natural. We didn’t even have to think about it. Then Jim came up with a great phrase, which I attribute to him because I’ve never heard anyone else use it except myself, but he called it cultivated intuition. You cultivate a visual idea so much that it becomes intuitive.
Meade would also tell me not to worry about coming out with my own style. He told me that style is either going to happen or it’s not; it’s going to be you coming out. He would tell me, “Miles Davis didn’t get a trumpet and start writing his own music and improvising; he learned the notes, he played the scales, he did the boring stuff over and over and over. Once he got good at the boring stuff, then he played other people’s music. Then, when he became proficient in other people’s music, people he admired, he took all those things and was able to push it further out than it had ever been pushed before.” That made complete sense to me. I wasn’t in college to make paintings, I wasn’t studying art to make paintings; I was studying to learn how to paint, the paintings would come later.
Visual strength is seeing something that connects deeper than ‘Wow, that’s a pretty horse in that painting.’ Or ‘That painting looks just like a photograph.’ It might be a great painting that looks just like a photograph, or it might be a shitty painting that looks like a photograph; but the fact that it looks like a photograph is irrelevant. It could simply consist of a few squiggly lines in the right place and it would be charged. Dali’s work is cool and interesting and psychological, but it relies so heavily on the subject matter being shocking that it’s a matter of diminishing returns: the more often you see his work it doesn’t grab you like it did the first time. I’m not sure if what he was doing defeated his purpose visually. Van Gogh’s Chair is powerful on both levels. I think good art engages with precariousness in balance between the linear composition and the color; you want unity, but you don’t want so much unity that it’s boring. You have to have some contrast. I guess I’ve allowed for this chaos and order by allowing all the chaos and accidental stuff to happen at first, so I’ve got to put it together. I don’t want to take away that spontaneity, but I want it to eventually look like a flat piece of art with everything fitting within the frame.
Every art professor in the world would probably cringe to hear someone say this, but art is something that you hang on your wall and you look at every day. If people didn’t have art hanging on their walls, then artists wouldn’t exist. I have a painting by Ellen Langford that see every day, and every time I look at it, it re-engages me. And I notice something different about it; either I’ll look at it formally, at the composition, the way she treats the negative space between the trees and around the house, or I’ll look at the expressions on the faces and see the animals in there. There’s a lot going on, but at the same time it’s simple; it’s got this juxtaposition, this push/pull, so what jumps out at me most often is what’s farthest away. Arnheim talks about this in his book, about flattening the space by making what’s farthest away in the painting come forward.
Even in my non-representational pieces, I’m very much concerned with the negative space and the picture plane. If everything doesn’t look like it belongs there, if everything doesn’t relate to that flat surface, then it doesn’t work. I try to put a sort of weird overlapping depth in there, but it also has to be flattened. So you’re tricking the minds of your viewers with this push/pull going on; it’s a visual element I use to re-engage the viewer. When people say ‘This artist is so talented,’ it’s almost an insult to the hard work it takes to be decent at something. That’s also what’s exciting about it. My work has continued to change and evolve, and I still learn things. They can refer to me as an artist when I’m good.