Old Rain

Every childhood has a Radley house, a Boo around the corner opening our eyes to a world that doesn’t appear or work the way we thought it does or will.

Old Rain spooked my little world. Some said he was a freakish child abandoned by a troupe of carnies, others said he was a lost baby Bigfoot come south. When he wasn’t brooding in a boarded-up house in Pittsboro, he haunted the woods and hollows feeding the creeks and streams that make the Skuna River.

I don’t know why we called him Old Rain, but what else is the Skuna or any other river for that matter except rain that’s found its way from hills to the bottoms and over-wintered in owl-haunted sloughs, distilled and aged, steeped in the character of the land–an inspiration of earth itself?

We lose imaginary monsters under the baggage of adulthood, so I tucked Old Rain away after finding far more frightening things than furtive whisperings on lonely pathways.

Now I believe he was a faunus of the little river bottoms and low wooded hills that my Choctaw ancestors knew and loved. They would call him bopoli, one of the little people who threw sticks, cones, and stones to make a stir in the woods. My Welsh ancestors would call him Cernunnos, the Green Man, a living vestige of the vital, priapic spirit of those vast, virgin forests which were a manifestation of divinity.

Now Old Rain in mind and memory is my companion in those places I cherish most: bright spring hills, close summer woods, and frosty winter fields. Hold close to your Boos, and make of them your own magic.

Faun Whistling to a Blackbird (1875), Arnold Böcklin

Charley Pride’s Baked Beans

As DA of Lafayette County in October, 1962, my father refused to sign a subpoena on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith at Ole Miss issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace.”

He loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.

Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something.

Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma  turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.

Soon after that, Charley made headlines as the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.

Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley.

It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.

Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans

8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained

Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.

Side by Side: A Review

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 ‎ ( Pelican Publishing, February 19, 2016) is as much about race than it is of the reestablishment of justice in the South, an ongoing trial if there ever was one.

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. Fashioning a screenplay for Side by Side would be aided and enhanced by Professor 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 the badlands of Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties that set a sordid Yoknapatawphian stage for what ultimately is a squalid incidence of multiple murder.

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.


Faulkner and Welty for Children

What compels great writers 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 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 never that easy.

The Yazoo

This heartfelt essay is the introduction to The Yazoo River by Frank E. Smith, the forty-seventh volume in The Rivers of America, a landmark series of books for the most part written by literary figures. The series spanned three publishers and thirty-seven years, starting in 1937 and ending in 1974 with the sixty-fourth volume.

At the time The Yazoo River was published, Smith, was a U.S. Congressman from the Delta region. Rep. Smith’s congressional career ended when redistricting forced him into a contest with fellow Democrat Jamie Whitten in the 1962 primary.

“It was Smith’s refusal to ‘race it up’ in his 1962 campaign that paved his way to defeat,” reporter Robert E. Baker later wrote in The Washington Post. Bowing to political reality, Smith knew “he could not participate in the vital field of human relations as a legislator,” Baker wrote in a 1964 review of Rep. Smith’s memoir, Congressman from Mississippi.”

“I had a problem,” Smith said, “but it did not reach momentous proportions until internationalism in any form became synonymous in Mississippi with socialism, communism, one-worldism, or (worst of all) integration.” Smith noted that “it was hard to find language that would satisfy my constituents and still not stir up hate.”

His perspective on the Yazoo Delta Region, where he concentrated on the special problems of conservation and development of natural resources, is that of a native son. Smith was born in Sidon, Miss. After attending public schools there and in Greenwood, Miss., he graduated from what was then Sunflower Junior College, in Moorhead, Miss. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1941 from the University of Mississippi, where he studied history. He went into the Army as a private a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. He became a field artillery officer in Europe.

After the war, he was editor of the Greenwood Morning Star, and in the late 1940s, he served as legislative assistant to Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.). After holding a state senate seat from 1948 to 1950, he was elected to Congress in 1950. His district encompassed the Delta, from just north of Vicksburg almost to the border with Tennessee.

Smith’s Yazoo (1954 )was preceded by Hodding Carter’s The Lower Mississippi in 1942. Smith dedicated his work

“In Memory of my Brother Fred Cecil Smith
Who loved the Yazoo country
and died defending it
at Guadalcanal/Nov.  19, 1942.”


The first tributaries of the Yazoo rise where the Tennessee hills meet the Delta of Mississippi, and eventually they drain all of the western half of the state down to Vicksburg.

The actual Yazoo watershed includes a few miles in Tennessee, southeast of Memphis, but the river and its basin belong only to Mississippi. The Yazoo carries the waters of the Coldwater, the Tallahatchie, the Yalobusha, the Yocona, the Skuna, the Sunflower, the Quiver, and other sizable streams like Steele’s Bayou, Bogue Phalia, and Deer Creek, which somehow missed the dignity of being called a river. In late summer, before rains, they are clear, pale-green ribbons among the willows. In the winters and springs they are ever-widening seas of yellow mud, taking to the Gulf the wealth of the land they drain.

With its satellite streams, the Yazoo is one of the major tributaries of the Mississippi, outranked only by the Ohio among the streams which flow from the east into the Father of Waters. With the extreme limit of its watershed barely touching Tennessee, the Yazoo is entirely within the state of Mississippi, not even forming part of a state boundary line. Although confined to the northwest quarter of one state, the story of the Yazoo is, more than anything else, the story of the Deep South, a region that was an American frontier for one hundred and fifty years. The story of the Yazoo country is the story of the role of cotton and high water and their influence on American life.

Memphis, on the Mississippi, is the metropolis of the Yazoo country today and a likely starting point for any traveler who wants to go south to visit the area, but the Yazoo wilder- ness had a world-wide fame long before Memphis was even a flatboat landing. Today the Yazoo is still an agricultural region, with no towns of any size. Vicksburg, on the Mississippi at the mouth of the Yazoo, is the largest and best known. But the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, richest and broadest of all the Mississippi Valley bottom lands, is America’s most fabled fertile farmland, the last stronghold of King Cotton and the Southern plantation.

The river’s basic stream begins with the Coldwater, which becomes a respectable river long before it meets the Tallahatchie 220 miles down in the Delta. The Tallahatchie has already curved 190 miles through the hills as the “Little Tallahatchie” and is big enough to dominate at the merger and give its name to the new stream. The Tallahatchie moves south 111 miles through Delta land before it is joined by the Yalobusha, fresh from 165 miles in the upland hills. Together they become the official Yazoo, with 189 more miles to go before joining the mother Mississippi at Vicksburg. The 520 miles of the Coldwater-Tallahatchie-Yazoo make it one of the major tributaries of the Mississippi. For the purposes of this book, I have included all the streams of the Yazoo system, for they are all part of the same story of the cotton country of Mississippi.

The most accepted geological theory is that the Yazoo was once the Ohio. The wide, sweeping scars which have been left on the Delta land in the form of crescent lakes and bayous are too broad and big to have been cut by the Yazoo itself. The Mississippi is known to have been still in place to the west at the time these scars were in the making, and so geologists are convinced that once the Ohio came down the path of the Yazoo, before erupting earth changed its route from south to west and established the Tennessee River as another part of its old channel.

Our story will not be of that geological mystery, but of the people whose lives were influenced and fashioned by the Yazoo and those who today are attempting to better their way of life by refashioning the Yazoo itself. Of necessity the story has to be about cotton, for the fleecy staple has dominated all the history of the white man on the Yazoo, who so often has come to believe it a kind of white gold.

The bluffs and rolling hills of the upper Yazoo country were the great prizes to be wrested from the Choctaws and Chickasaws in the years immediately after Mississippi became a state. This was the frontier of cotton during the famous flush times of the Southwest. The planters of the region where cotton was so vigorously ruling were chief among the Secessionists in 1860, eager to preserve the system which had opened up new land for them, and which annually brought forth a heavy harvest from the fertile acres.

Postponement of the conflict for a few years might have greatly dampened their enthusiasm for the plantation system and slavery. The topsoil was thin throughout the upper Yazoo basin, and it began to wash away into poverty just as soon as farming returned to its peak after the failure of the War for Southern Independence. The evils of the cash-crop economy which the tyrant of the new plantation credit system soon shackled on the land were a major contributing factor to the rapid erosion of the land, but the decline in fertility was inevitable from the start.

Only the Delta land, the major portion of the Yazoo basin, was rich enough to sustain the new cotton system for a long period of time. Before the war the flat Delta country, which had fed to a richness surpassing the Nile Valley on the regularly overflowing rivers, was known as the Wilderness. Bold men willing to push out from the steamboat landings found it a morass of forest and swamp and cypress brake, seemingly all of it under water half the time. Pioneer settlement of both planters and squatters began even before the land was ceded by the Indians, but the Delta was still a frontier for years after the Civil War. This was the time for a new type of pioneer, one who could get the most results from the black laborers who were now free men and thus establish the last stronghold of the feudal plantation system, which did not change materially until it felt the impact of the economic revolution which got underway in the 1930’s.

The people of the Delta define their region as the Yazoo Delta, to differentiate it from the technical delta of the Mississippi south of New Orleans, and they have made the story of the Delta the principal part of the story of the Yazoo. Rich land makes the Delta richer, if the richness has only been by comparison with the poverty-stricken hill cotton country of Mississippi. The symbol of the richness has been Delta cot- ton, which traditionally commands a premium of at least two cents per pound because of its long staple quality. The Delta pattern of life for all of its people, black and white, has been richer in the same comparison, both for those who lived it and those who watched it.

Even though one or two small factories are now found in nearly all the towns of the basin with as much as two or three thousand population, cotton is still the dominant factor in the economy. There is an oil refinery on the banks of the river south of Yazoo City, near the site of the Confederate shipyard, but petroleum development has touched only a portion of the Yazoo country largely outside of the Yazoo watershed. Traditional Southern cotton production is shifting to California and the Southwest, but the Yazoo Delta will likely stay with cotton for a long time still to come.

The Delta is all sky and level lands that never fall beyond the horizon in any direction, for the high riding clouds are tumbled down behind the bayou cypress. No trees are in the cotton that shimmers white through the brown foliage in the September sun, but every field is broken by the lines of willows and cypress that follow a bayou. Delta sunsets bring the whole land into a blaze that gives the brownish light of fire to every object until the grayness of dusk moves in.

There are no theatrical Southern “mammies” here, dressed in store-bought bandannas and gingham for the benefit of tourists. The Delta has not attempted to sell the romance of cotton and the plantation instead of the staple itself. By the same token, the Delta has never known much of the provincialism of other portions of the rural South; the hard lessons of experience have taught Deltans never to let the struggle for livelihood interfere with the enjoyment of life.

In common with most of the rest of the South, the Delta makes a food specialty of barbecue and Brunswick stew, but nowhere else does every segment of the population share in the common institution of the fish fry. Game fish of considerable variety inhabit more than one hundred lakes left like scars on the land by the meandering rivers of other days, but the big cats from the Yazoo itself are standard fare for the best fish fry. True Delta catfish in its most delectable form is prepared by rolling large slices of the fish in meal and salt and frying it in hot pork grease. The very ease of preparation is deceptive, for only a true fish artist can know just the right sizzle for the grease and just the right golden tone that announces the finely done fish.

In the midst of the mechanized farms and the new commerce and industry of the towns, there is still enough left of the hurried combination of frontier and plantation eras to provide a distinctive flavor of both. Little more than a hundred years ago the Delta was a deep forest, with water oak, cypress, sweet gum, and pecan trees blending with walnut, maple, and cottonwood to hide the sun from the virtually impenetrable cane and brush. The Yazoo rose every year to spread a lake over the land, with a new film of rich topsoil left behind for the reservoir of fertility. In the summer and fall it had all the beauty of a placid lake. In 1821, while painting a great-footed hawk which he killed on the river, Audubon described “a beautiful stream of transparent water, covered by thousands of geese and ducks and filled with fish.”

With all the wealth and the lost beauty, the name in Choctaw means “River of Death.” The Indians supposedly gave it the name when they died by thousands from the unknown maladies probably left behind by the soldiers of Hernando De Soto. The death struggle of the Indians was continued by the white settlers who faced the same deadly scourges. The disease of malaria was eventually conquered, but not until the river itself, in combination with the cotton culture, was on the verge of destroying the new civilization in its basin through flood and erosion of both land and people. The people have fought back, however, and they are confident now that the Yazoo will never be death to them.

A Magnolia in Zaire

Kingsolver’s prose can be ponderous or playful by turns. The Poisonwood Bible casts a cadenced eye on a life lured or provoked into that balance  between being and living where distinctions are uncertain, an exposition of grim, unrelenting endurance,

A native of Kentucky, Kingsolver might find comparisons to Mississippi’s Nobelist flattering yet annoying. Faulkner, more than any other American writer in the past century, has been used by countless critics and academics as a rough rule of thumb for superiority among writers whose sentences involve any degree of rhetorical convolutions, the comparison has become far too trite to be taken seriously in most contexts.

Still, who can help but detect Faulkner’s shadow moving behind Kingsolver’s heartrending portrait of Orleanna’s early life in Pearl, Mississippi?

My downfall was not predicted. I didn’t grow up looking for ravishment or rescue, either one. My childhood was a happy one in its own bedraggled way. My mother died when I was quite young, and certainly a motherless girl will come up wanting in some respects, but in my opinion she has a freedom unknown to other daughters. For every womanly fact of life she doesn’t get told, a star of possibility still winks for her on the horizon.

Jackson, Mississippi, in the Great Depression wasn’t so different from the Congo thirty years later, except that in Jackson we knew of some that had plenty and I guess that did make us restless from time to time. In Kilanga, people knew nothing of things they might have had—a Frigidaire? a washer-dryer combination? Really, they’d sooner imagine a tree that could pull up its feet and go bake bread. It didn’t occur to them to feel sorry for themselves. Except when children died—then they wept and howled. Anyone can recognize the raging injustice there. But otherwise I believe they were satisfied with their lot.

And so it was for me, as a child in the Depression, with that same practical innocence. So long as I was surrounded only with what I knew, that’s what life had to offer and I took it. As a noticeably pretty child, and later on, a striking girl, I had my own small way in the world. My father, Bud Wharton, was an eye doctor. We lived on the outskirts of Jackson proper, in a scrubby settlement called Pearl. Dad saw patients in the back room of the house, which had metal cabinets for his nested lenses that tinkled like glass wind chimes when you opened and shut the drawers. Up front, we ran a store. We had to, because in hard times everyone’s eyes get better or at least good enough. In the store we sold fresh produce my cousins brought in from their truck farm, and also dry goods and a little ammunition. We squeaked by. We all lived upstairs. At one time there were eleven altogether, cousins from Noxubee County, uncles who came and went with the picking season, and my old Aunt Tess. She was a mother to me if I needed one. What Aunt Tess loved to say was: “Sugar, it’s no parade but you’ll get down the street one way or another, so you’d just as well throw your shoulders back and pick up your pace.” And that was more or less what we all believed in.

I don’t think Dad ever forgave me, later on, for becoming a Free Will Baptist. He failed to see why anyone would need more bluster and testimony about God’s Plan than what he found, for example, within the fine-veined world of an eyeball. That, and a good chicken dinner on Sundays. Dad drank and cursed some but not in any way that mattered. He taught me to cook, and otherwise let me run wild with my cousins. On the outskirts of Pearl lay a wilderness. There we discovered pitcher-plant bogs where we’d hike up our dresses, sink on our knees in the rich black muck, and stare carnivory right in the lips, feeding spiders to the pitcher plants. This was what I worshiped and adored as a child: miracles of a passionate nature. Later on, we discovered kissing boys. Then tent revivals.

It was some combination of all those things that ran me up against Nathan Price. I was seventeen, bursting utterly with happiness. Arm in arm we girls marched forward in our thin cotton dresses with all eyes upon us. Tossing our hair, down the aisle we went between the rows of folding chairs borrowed from the funeral home, right straight to the front of the crowded tent for the Lord’s roll call. We threw ourselves at Jesus with our unsaved bosoms heaving. We had already given a chance to all the other red-necked hooligans in Pearl by then, and were looking for someone who better deserved us. Well, why not Jesus? We were only in it for the short run anyhow—we assumed He would be gone by the end of the week, the same as all others.

But when the tent folded up, I found I had Nathan Price in my life instead, a handsome young red-haired preacher who fell upon my unclaimed soul like a dog on a bone. He was more sure of himself than I’d thought it possible for a young man to be, but I resisted him. His seriousness dismayed me. He could be jolly with old ladies in crepe de chine dresses, patting their hunched backs, but with me he could not let go the subject of heaven except to relieve it occasionally with his thoughts on hell.

Our courtship crept up on me, mainly because I didn’t recognize that’s what it was. I thought he was just bound and determined to save me. He’d park himself on our dusty front-porch steps, fold his suit jacket neatly on the glider, roll up his sleeves, and read to me from the Psalms and Deuteronomy while I shelled beans. How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain? The words were mysterious and beautiful, so I let him stay. My prior experience with young men was to hear them swear “Christ almighty in the crap-house!” at any dress with too many buttons. Now here was one from whose mouth came, The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times; and He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

Oh, I wanted those green pastures. I could taste the pale green sweetness of the blade of wheat, stripped and sucked between my teeth. I wanted to lie down with those words and rise up speaking a new language. So I let him stay.

As a young and ambitious revival preacher, his circuit was supposed to divide him equally between Rankin, Simpson, and Copiah counties, but I’ll tell you what: more souls got saved in Pearl that summer than the Lord probably knew what to do with. Nathan hardly missed a Sunday chicken dinner at our house. Aunt Tess finally said, “You’re a-feeding him anyways, child, why not go on and marry him if that’s what he’s after.”

I suppose I’ll never know if that was what he was after. But when I told him Aunt Tess was more or less needing an answer, before committing more chickens to the project, the idea of marriage suited him well enough so that he owned it as his. I hardly had time to think about my own answer—why, it was taken to be a foregone conclusion. And even if anyone had been waiting for my opinion, I wouldn’t have known how to form one. I’d never known any married person up close. What did I know of matrimony? From where I stood, it looked like a world of flattering attention, and what’s more, a chance to cross the county line.

We married in September and spent our honeymoon picking cotton for the war effort. In ‘39 and ‘40 there had been such talk of war, the boys were getting called up just to make a show of being ready for anything, I suppose. But Nathan had always been exempted, as an indispensible worker—not for the Lord, but for King Cotton. He did farm labor between revivals, and in the autumn of ‘41 it was our first enterprise as newlyweds to bend our backs together in the dusty fields. When the rough cotton pokes were filled, our hands clawed raw and our hair and shoulders tufted with white, we believed we’d done our part. Never did we dream that shortly the bombs would fall on a faraway harbor whose name struck a chill across our own small, landlocked Pearl.

Aunt Beck’s Chicken Pie

Beck Beecham brought this pie to Granny Vaughn’s 90th birthday gathering ‘specially for her nephew, Jack, who’d escaped from Parchman to be at the celebration. Welty claims it’s a Methodist dish.

1 young chicken (about 4 lbs.)
6 small white onions
2 ounces bacon, cut in small cubes
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
3 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Pastry to cover a 9-inch pie

Boil the chicken in highly seasoned water and allow to cool in its broth. Separate the meat from skin and bones, leaving the chicken in large pieces. Boil the onions in salted water until tender, but not mushy, and drain.

Fry the bacon until tender, without browning; remove from frying pan and set aside. In the remaining fat, cook the flour over very low heat for 3 minutes, then gradually stir in 21/2 cups of the broth in which the chicken was cooked. Add parsley, celery, salt and pepper, simmer for 6 minutes.

Put half the quantity of bacon, half the chicken pieces, half the quantity of onions and half the quantity of eggs in the baking dish. Lay on the remaining pieces of chicken, add the rest of the other ingredients and pour the sauce over all.

Cover with rich pie pastry, pressing down the edges with a fork. Brush with milk and make several slashes for the steam to escape. Bake in a hot oven (450° F) for 15 minutes, reduce heat to moderate (350° F) and bake 30 minutes longer. Serve at once with succotash. Serves 6.

Genius Loci

Academics often deride local history as poorly-researched, ill-written, and insular.

This criticism can and is levelled at history written on any level, but who can scorn local research as insufficient when so little material is in place? As to poorly-written, hell, even Gibbon can go on like he’s working with an empty bottle of port at his elbow. As to insularity, who can say that the storming of the Bastille isn’t local history to Parisians or the Beer Hall Putsch isn’t to Munich?

The least motes of history forge the narrative, and in the smallest arenas of mankind we find a locus of the whole. Let us treasure those who compelled by their love of place put before us a likeness of how it was before our time, helping us learn who we are, revealing how this part of the world shapes our lives.

A History of Greater Belhaven is available at the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi.

Pinky’s Barbecue Baste

During the Great Depression, the Federal Writer’s Project assigned many unemployed writers (unemployment being a chronic condition among writers no matter the economic climate is, trust me) to collect information for a work that was to be called “America Eats”.

Pearl Harbor halted work on the project, but Pat Willard found the materials and fashioned them into America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA – the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin’ Feasts That Define Real American Food (2008).

This chronicle of America’s regional cuisine focused on events–church suppers, harvest festivals, state fairs, political rallies, lodge suppers–where food was a primary element.

Eudora Welty threw in a julep recipe, and Ralph Ellison chronicled the chant of the Harlem “sweet pertater man.” Recipes for such staples as pickles, breads, stews, and barbecue abound.

This baste is from Pinky Langley, a white man from Jackson. He instructs readers to mix the ingredients, cook for 30 minutes, and to turn and baste the meat frequently.

3 lemons sliced
1 pint vinegar
3 heaping tablespoons sugar
1 heaping tablespoon prepared mustard
3/4 pound melted oleo (margarine)
1 small bottle tomato catsup
1 small bottle Lea & Perrins Sauce
3 chopped onions
enough water to make 3/4 gallons
salt, black and red pepper to taste

The Giant Houseparty Cookbook

This gem was another find among the amazing avalanche of books at Fred Smith’s Choctaw Books when it was on North Street in Jackson.

Published in 1981 by the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Chamber of Commerce, the book itself is hefty, a good inch-and-a-half thick, and contains almost 1000 recipes. Most of these recipes are typical of the time: dozens of casseroles, oodles of pies and cakes, and of the sixty-odd salad recipes only two involve no gelatin whatsoever.

The introduction was written by Stanley Dearman, who for 34 years (beginning in 1966) was the editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia. Dearman’s editorials expressing outrage at the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers helped set the stage for the belated conviction of a former Klansman for organizing the killings, The case that became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, and was the basis for the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning.”

Along with the introduction, I’ve included Turner Catledge’s cheese grits, Fannie Smith’s blackberry trifle, and another blackberry recipe, “Blackberry Acid,” a truly antique refreshment.

In this particular region of the South–the east central hill country of Mississippi—the tradition of food and fellowship go back many generations. More specifically, eating and talking are two things that natives in this region value highly and take seriously.

Nowhere do these two activities blend more happily than at the Neshoba County Fair-which in fact started in 1889 with a picnic under the trees and around the wagons by community residents who wanted to get together and talk-while they ate, of course, and to display their agricultural achievements. For many years the Fair has been known as “Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty-hence the name of this cookbook.

During one week of the year, usually the first in August, the Fairground is transformed into a bustling city with a festive air. More than 500 cabins circling the racetrack, as well as hundreds of campers and mobile homes from across the South, are temporary homes for thousands who migrate back because of family connections or friendships. There are no strangers here; hospitality abounds and food and drink are shared by all.

The fame of the Fair has spread over the years. Last year it was featured in National Geographic and Southern Living magazines. And during the presidential campaign, Ronald and Nancy Reagan paid a visit and drew a record crowd. State politics and its florid oratory have been a part of the Fair since before the turn of the century.

Fair Week is preceded by several weeks of brisk activity and planning by the womenfolk-casseroles are made and frozen; hams and turkeys are baked or smoked; menus are planned and the shelves are stocked. In this region of abundant agricultural crops, corn, tomatoes, peas, butterbeans, squash and okra are harvested and processed, fitting complements to the succulent fried chicken and magnificent repertoire of dazzling desserts. A section of special Fair recipes is included in this book.

The production of the Giant Houseparty cookbook was the result of a project begun by the Philadelphia Rotary Club. For many years the Rotary Club distributed mimeographed recipe booklets at its annual pancake suppers. These booklets became collector’s items over the years.

The Rotary Club first considered producing a cookbook, but later granted permission to the Chamber of Commerce to assume the project. The committee selected and edited recipes from the existing collection prior to collecting others. A special effort was made to gather recipes which not only had become part of the local culinary lore, but to achieve a balance of “useful” recipes.

Another special effort was made to gather recipes from former residents in various parts of the country. For example, Turner Catledge, retired editor of the New York Times, was kind enough to send us his recipe for cheese grits. Mr. Catledge grew up in Neshoba County and now lives in New Orleans. He and Mrs. Catledge gave a dinner party in their home for Van Cliburn, whose father, the late Harvey Lavan Cliburn, was born and reared in Neshoba County, Catledge and Cliburn had much to talk about at that dinner party, which included that grits casserole.

Also, closer to home, we are delighted to include a recipe for Blackberry Trifle from Mrs. Fannie Johnson Smith, who at the age of 102 vividly recalls the day in 1889 when, at the age of 10, she accompanied her parents across a hill or two to the first Neshoba County Fair.
—Stanley Dearman

Catledge Cheese Grits

1 cup grits
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups grated cheese
Dash of red pepper’1/2 stick butter

Combine grits, salt, and water and bring to a boil, stirring well. Place over bottom of a double boiler and cook for 40 minutes. While this is cooking, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add cheese, eggs, butter and pepper. Place in a Pyrex dish and heat in oven about 30 minutes.

Blackberry Trifle

1 cup blackberry trifle
1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup butter
2 tablespoons flour
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 9-in. unbaked pie shell
4 tablespoons sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix well jam, sugar, buttermilk, butter, flour, egg yolks, and vanilla. Pour into pie shell. Bake about 40 minutes. Beat egg whites until stiff, gradually adding 4 tablespoons of sugar. Spread meringue on top of pie and return to oven to brown lightly.

Blackberry Acid

3 gallons blackberries
½ gallon boiling water
4 ounces tartaric acid
1 ½ cups sugar to 1 cup juices

Crush berries, add boiling water, and let stand 24 hours. Strain, add tartaric acid and sugar. Let stand at least 24 hours before bottling.