Of Hams and Dreams

In the 1930s, Harry J. Hoenselaar worked at a honey-baked ham store in Detroit, handing out samples and teaching drugstore clerks how to slice hams for sandwiches. He had long since mastered knifing ham from the bone, but he knew there had to be a better way.

Then Harry had a dream, and with a tire jack, a pie tin, a washing machine motor, and a knife, he fashioned and patented the world’s first ham spiralizer. He later bought the Detroit honey-baked ham store where he once worked from the owner’s widow in 1957.

The original Honey Baked Ham store on Eight Mile Road in Detroit eventually spawned a company with 417 stores, from Southern California to New Hampshire. The busiest is in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. After decades of familial wrangling and consolidation, the entire operation has landed in the lap of Linda van Rees, a granddaughter, who moved the company headquarters to Alpharetta, Georgia, in 2015.

Many people warm spiral-sliced hams, but it’s best bring the ham to room temperature, twist a steak knife around the small center bone, and follow the natural lines of the meat to cut smaller pieces.

Louis LeFleur, Frontiersman

Surprisingly little has been written about Louis LeFleur, who gave his name to Jackson’s Pearl River bluff, and became the father of the last chief of the Choctaw Nation (Greenwood LeFlore). Much of that written is inaccurate, the most glaring error being that he was a French-Canadian when in fact he was born in the tiny French colony of “Mobille” surrounding Fort Condé on the Gulf of Mexico.

Louis LeFleur was born Louis LeFlau; since by custom Louis eventually came to be known as LeFleur, we’ll use that name throughout to refer to him as LeFlore will be used in reference to his son Greenwood. Louis’ father, Jean Baptiste LeFlau came from France in the early 18th century as a soldier in the Fort Condé garrison. In 1735, he married Jeanne Boissinot, a native of Mobile, who bore him three children before her death in 1752. Jean Baptiste then married Jeanne Girard in 1753 and Louis, their third child, was born on June 29, 1762. There are no records of Louis LeFlau after his baptismal entry of 1762 until around 1790, but it’s certain that during this time he began trading with Native Americans, primarily the Choctaws, and likely operated flat-boats on the Amite and Pearl Rivers as well as in the Mississippi Sound.

LeFleur epitomizes those men of the American frontier who plied their trade along the navigable rivers in a wilderness before, during and even after the advent of steamboats and the eventual dominance of rail. In Antebellum Natchez James D. Clayton writes that “L. LeFleur (sic), father of a celebrated Choctaw Chieftain of a later era, operated with handsome profits the main boat shuttle to Pensacola, carrying produce and commodities.” He brought luxury items to the prosperous city of Natchez, including “fine apparel” which “had been ordered from Panton, Leslie, and Company of St. Marks in east Florida.” The boats LeFleur and those like him used were flatboats or keelboats that were manned by a crew of up to twenty-five people. The goods LeFleur routinely carried were much less luxurious used in his trade with the Choctaw, and the pelts he secured were sold in the trading houses at St. Marks and Pensacola. Corn and other farm products were sold in in Florida and Natchez.

Sometime around 1790, LeFleur cheerfully adopted the Choctaw system of polygamy and married both Nancy and Rebecca Cravat, the half-French nieces of the Choctaw Chief Pushmataha. LeFleur moved his growing family—three children were born by 1798—to Pass Christian, but with the establishment of the Choctaw Agency near present-day Jackson, he chose as a location for a new home a high bluff on the west side of the Pearl River, rising some twenty-five feet above the crest of the floods and extending along the river for several hundred feet. With the opening on the Natchez Trace under the treaty of Fort Adams in 1801, LeFleur opened a way station in the same location where traders, travelers and mail carriers could secure fresh horses. This station rapidly became an inn providing bed and board as well as entertainment. The actual site of this trading post is disputed. Greenwood was the first of the “LeFlau” sons to be born at LeFleur’s Bluff on June 2, 1800. He was named for the Greenwood in the firm of Greenwood and Higginson, the London correspondents of Panton and Leslie.

LeFleur still operated his profitable boating trade, securing commissions from General William C.C. Claiborne, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the newly organized (1798) Mississippi Territory to carry “certain goods sent by the United States as presents to the Choctaw Nation of Indians.” He also carried messages to the Governor of the Province of Louisiana. In addition to being entrusted with the delivery of merchandise making up the government annuity payments to the Choctaw Nation, Louis was asked to be present at the occasions when terms of treaties were negotiated. Louis “Leflow” is listed as one of the witnesses to the Treaty of Mount Dexter on November 16, 1805, which conveyed large amounts of land in what is now southeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama, including much of the western portion of Clarke County, Alabama, to the United States.

By 1810, operation of the inn and raising cattle had become LeFleur’s main enterprises, and he, along with Louis Durant, was said to have introduced cattle into Mississippi. Travelers from the east and from foreign lands have mentioned the accommodations at the Bluff and at the inn he established in 1812 at the place now known as French Camp. At French Camp, LeFleur had a number of buildings erected and it was here in 1812 that Major John Donly, who held the U.S. Government contract for transporting the mail on the Nashville-Natchez route, suggested to Louis that he be allowed to take young Greenwood home to Nashville with him in order that the boy might receive an “American education”, and LeFleur consented. Louis served with Pushmataha under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and was promoted to the rank of major (brevet). He also served three months in 1814 in command of a company on Russell’s expedition to Alabama. He later served in the campaign to Pensacola in 1814-15.

With the introduction of the steamboat on the Mississippi River—the New Orleans was the first steamboat down the Mississippi in 1811—commerce along the Trace fell, but LeFleur expanded his agricultural interests and in a decade tripled their acreage in cultivation and heads of cattle. Greenwood was elected Chief of the Northwestern Division of the Choctaws, but when Jackson was elected president in 1828 he pursued a policy of negating the treaties between the U.S. and the Choctaws, and with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) the Choctaws were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands. In a survey of freeholds within the Choctaw lands is a record for “Louis LeFlau, 300 acres in cultivation in the Yazoo Valley; five in family with four males over 16”. Major LeFlau was to receive two sections of land according to the Supplement to the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was a tragedy for the Choctaws and it caused deep rifts in the LeFlau/LeFleur/LeFlore family. Details are sketchy, but Greenwood is in the fifth and last level of behests in Louis’ will, which was signed April 16, 1833. Louis LeFleur died that same year, and while his gravesite is unknown, family tradition states that he was buried in Hot Springs, Arkansas, not very far from LeFlore County, Oklahoma.

(Note: This article is a brief summation of preliminary research towards a more thorough examination of Louis LeFleur and should not be considered definitive.)

Art by Randy Steele

Thanksgiving with Alice

Thanksgiving has a uniquely American song, not the sort that Lincoln might have imagined when he inaugurated the holiday in 1863, but “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is revolutionary, irreverent and earthy; in short, as American as pumpkin pie.

“Now it all started two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the Restaurant, but Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. This song is called Alice’s Restaurant, and it’s about Alice, and the Restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song, and that’s why I called the song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.”

“I think a lot of people who are interested in food fantasize about having a restaurant,” Alice Brock writes in My Life As a Restaurant (1975). “I never did. I was twenty-five, married and crazy. I was a captive in a situation I had very little control over other than the role of cook and nag—being a hippy housewife was not satisfying. I had a world of fantasies; none included a restaurant, but all were based on the assumption that I would be my own person, on my own trip.”

Alice’s mother, who was a real estate broker in Stockbridge and determined to get her daughter out of her “situation”, called her one day and asked her to go with her and look at a little luncheonette for sale down an alley in the middle of town. “It had a counter down one side and three or four booths on the other side, and a tiny ill-equipped kitchen in the back,” Alice remembers. “It was painted two-tone institutional green, and it was definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own. But it was a chance, a chance to escape. Before we left, I was hooked. I was already creating a menu, I was already free. Those moments, when suddenly an opportunity appears, a door opens—they are what life is all about.”

Alice called her restaurant “The Back Room”. “I knew nothing, absolutely nothing,” she admits. “I can’t believe how innocent I was. But it didn’t matter.” Opening night was a near-disaster, “a nightmare”, but she persevered, and soon she and her sister, who was also in a “situation”, were staying up all night cooking things she later wouldn’t consider for hundred-dollar-a-plate dinners and working five hours making thirty portions of some exotic soup that would vanish in twenty minutes the next day. “I was crazy, she said, “but I know that for all our unprofessionalism, we cooked some pretty wonderful dishes, and I established a reputation as a cook.”

The summer of 1966 was a magical time for Stockbridge; the Berkshire Playhouse had reorganized with an eye to becoming more than just a summer stock theater, attracting stars and would-be stars to the town. “Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman liked hamburgers with onion, green peppers, and an egg in them,” Alice writes. “Frank Langella was called ‘Mr. Mushroom Omelet’. Ann Bancroft was wonderful, and when her whole family came, I cooked giant meals; when they stayed late, she helped me clear the table.”

One spring morning a year after opening, Alice says that she walked through the front door and freaked out. “I felt that instead of owning it, it owned me. The plates were out to get me, the pots were planning an attack, the stove was laughing at me. I had a terrible urge to smash everything.” Instead, she called Eastern Airlines and booked a midnight flight to Puerto Rico, emptied the cash box and gave away all the food. “It was a wonderful restaurant. It was a success. I ran it for one year. It turned me into a madwoman. I made enemies of old friends. I broke up with my husband. I left my home. I had actually broken free and become my own person. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant. Never say never.”

Alice Brock went on to open not one but several more restaurants; she now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she owns an art gallery. After Arlo premiered “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” before a captivated crowd of over ten thousand at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, 1967, he performed it live on non-commercial New York City radio station WBAI one night later that summer. The song became so popular that for months afterward WBAI rebroadcast it only when listeners pledged to donate a large amount of money. The eponymous (less the massacree) album was released that same year, with the song (at 18:20) taking up the entire first side, the other filled with a selection of bluesy folk tunes. The ballad has become a Thanksgiving tradition not only for classic rock stations, but for thousands of households across the nation.

To the Ramparts of Infinity: A Review

With “Sartoris” (1929), William Faulkner began “sublimating the actual into apocryphal,” targeting his great grandfather, William Clark Falkner, as inspiration for the Yoknapatawpha cosmos and prototype for Colonel John Sartoris.

While it’s the incandescence of William Faulkner that provides the impetus for critics and historians to piece together the life W.C. Falkner, Colonel Falkner was a prominent, if not towering figure in his own right, certainly in terms of the history of north Mississippi, and an archetype of the men who fashioned a nation out of the Southern frontier.

The Yoknapatawpha stories also led Jack Elliott to W.C. Falkner. Elliott first heard about “Old Colonel” Falkner at the initial Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi in 1974, and a field trip to Ripley brought young Elliott to the foot of the nineteen-foot Falkner monument that dominates the cemetery, the actual counterpart to the “apocryphal” monument in the Jefferson cemetery where the marble statue of John Sartoris [gazes] “to the blue, changeless hills beyond, and beyond that, the ramparts of infinity itself.”

In time, Elliott began formulating a work on the life of W.C. Falkner, and found that not only were the stories that circulated about Falkner during his lifetime “fantastic and exaggerated,” these stories themselves were “perpetuated and augmented by short, poorly researched historical pieces.” Elliott sets out to amend these shortcomings, which indeed he does superbly, with a seasoned scholar’s attention to detail and an ear for the written word.

Elliott’s account of Falkner’s early years and the progress of the Falkners and their Word relatives from the eastern seaboard is supported by comprehensive documentation. When the U.S. Congress declared war against Mexico in May 1846, Falkner was elected first lieutenant, which, Elliott confirms, “was certainly due to his popularity among his peers rather than his ability to command.” Elliott provides a thorough account of Falkner’s actions in Mexico, as well as the succeeding Civil War in which he was an officer (“brigadier general, then captain, then colonel and … captain again”) of the Magnolia Rifles, a company from Ripley.

Elliott doesn’t neglect Falkner’s education, stating that he “read law” under his uncles Thomas Jefferson (“Jeff”) Word and J.W. Thompson, and was admitted to the nascent Mississippi bar in 1850. Little else is known of his formal education, though Elliott says that Falkner himself alludes to studying Cicero and Julius Caesar.

Though Elliott’s biography doesn’t stint on a full account of Falkner’s extensive feuds with the Hindmans or with Thurmond, Elliot is determined to discredit earlier portrayals of W.C. Falkner that paint him as a pathological megalomaniac, stating that “The evidence for such a scenario is weak and the conclusion little more than a strained surmise that was bolstered by repetition.” Elliott points out that Falkner was “well-liked by most and even idolized by many,” and that earlier historians (particularly Duclos) “failed to see the feud [with R.J. Thurmond, his assassin] in terms of a conflict over differing visions for the railroad …”

Throughout the work, Elliot provides supporting evidence of Falkner’s character, including this from Thurmond’s great-nephew: “[Falkner] loved power and the trappings of power; he delighted in playing the Grand Seignor (sic), yet was a public-spirited citizen and at heart a kindly if hot-blooded man.”

Another falsehood Elliott seeks to dispel is that Falkner was not the prime architect of the Ripley Railroad, that Falkner managed to inveigle the public into believing that he was the driving force behind the project when in fact he was only one among many who contributed to the scheme. But, though the original charter for the Ripley Railroad Company was issued to W. C. Falkner, R. J. Thurmond, and thirty-five other incorporators in December 1871, the mountain of evidence Elliott presents is far more than enough to convince even a skeptical reader—who are at this late date likely to be few—that it was indeed Falkner “who brought the social, political, and financial elements together and made it happen.”

Elliott examines Falkner’s life in letters with marvelous detail. He gives, for example, an entertaining synopsis of Falkner’s famous melodrama, “The White Rose of Memphis” (1881), complete with contemporary reviews. Digging deeper, he examines Falkner’s less successful second novel, “The Little Brick Church” (1882), and his play, “The Lost Diamond” (1874). Earlier writings—including a sensationalist pamphlet, a narrative poem, and a short novel—also come under review.

Elliott offers insights into Falkner’s writing habits, and documents his familiarity not only with the Bible, but with Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Homer, and Cervantes. In May 1883, Falkner toured Europe and published an account of his travels, “Rapid Ramblings in Europe” the following year.

What Elliott sets out to do is to “to inquire into the image of a man long dead, an image partly frozen into that of a marble statue.” Elliott’s biography of “Old Colonel” Falkner embraces far more than that life, that image. “As in much of local history, the memory of a place draws us to delve into the matrix of interconnected symbols, whether stories or documents or associated places.”

To that end, Elliott’s work on Falkner embraces not just the man, but the milieu, the town of Ripley and the society and culture—such as it was—of north Mississippi in his day. He includes a fascinating “Field Guide to Colonel Falkner’s Ripley,” a block-by-block examination of the town using the grid established by the surveyor “who in 1836 laid out the streets, blocks, and lots, and this geometry still frames the lives of residents and visitors today.” Filled with historic photos of homes, businesses, and downtown traffic (i.e., cotton wagons and railroad cars), this section of the book will undoubtedly find the greatest appeal among casual readers.

Elliott’s writing is lucid, orderly, and compelling. Perhaps Elliott didn’t consciously set out to write the “complete, sensitive, and discerning biography” of W.C. Falkner Thomas McHaney expressed a need for almost sixty years ago, but, in the end, he has.

Bon Ton Bread Pudding

Le bon ton” references that flaky crust of society assumed to have cutting-edge style and better manners than those of us wallowing among The Great Unwashed. As such, the phrase “bon ton” has been used by a variety of businesses–particularly restaurants, of course–hoping to attract such a clientele.

One such establishment, the Bon Ton Café at 211 West Capitol Street in Jackson, opened in the early 1900s. The Bon Ton was one of the city’s finest dining establishments, and had the first electric sign on Capitol Street to better attract customers from Union Station.

Another more famous Bon Ton was established in New Orleans in the Natchez Building at 401 Magazine Street. Originally opened in the early 1900s as well, the business was revived in the early 1950s by Al and Alzina Pierce, who came to the Crescent City from south Louisiana, bringing with them their recipes from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, becoming the first dining establishment in the city to stake a claim for Cajun cuisine in a city already famous for its Creole culinary tradition.

The Bon Ton’s best-known dish is its bread pudding. When I worked in the Florida panhandle, we made a similar pudding with stale croissants, but the texture was dense owing to the abundance of air pockets in the bread; a good, foamy French loaf is much better the recipe.

Here is Alzina Pierce’s original recipe, which comes via Jackson native Winnifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (Oxmoor, 1976).

Soak one loaf of French bread in a quart of whole milk and crush with hands until well mixed. Add 3 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons vanilla extract, 1 cup seedless raisins (optional), and place in a buttered “thick, oblong baking pan”. Bake until very firm, then cool. Make a whiskey sauce; cream a half cup of butter with a cup of sugar, and cook in a double boiler until thoroughly dissolved. Add a well-beaten egg, whipping rapidly to prevent curdling. Let cool and add whiskey of your choice to taste. Pour over pudding, heat under broiler and serve.

Charlotte’s Mummy

Charlotte Capers, long-time director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was—in stark contrast to her current successor—a woman of considerable integrity, intelligence, and wit. This is an excerpt from a speech given before the Mississippi Historical Society in March 1972.

After its creation in 1902, the Department remained in the basement of the New Capitol until 1940, when more commodious quarters, but not much more, were provided in the War Memorial Building. Since Dr. Rowland’s day, the Department has acted as a clearing-house historical agency, and the Museum function was included in this. However, when the Department moved into the War Memorial Building, the collection housed in the New Capitol was, of necessity, abandoned. Certainly, there was no space in the north wing of the new building for a full-fledged museum. Thus, we left in the basement of the New Capitol, a mysterious and miscellaneous collection including an Egyptian mummy, the hip-bone of a North Dakota dinosaur, a pair of size 20 shoes worn by an Alabama Negro in World War I, and a toy snake from the Philippines.

The star of this collection was the mummy, who had enchanted visitors to Jackson ever since she had been acquired as lagniappe in a collection of Indian artifacts many years ago. A real mummy mystique had developed, and grandfathers brought their toddling grandchildren in to see the mummy that they had seen as boys. When the board of trustees quite properly adopted in the Old Capitol Restoration, the collection was limited to items associated with Mississippi history. The mummy, an Egyptian, was plainly out of place. It fell my lot to separate the little Egyptian, known variously to her public as ‘The Little Gypsy Lady,” or occasionally as ”The Dummy,” from her admirers. I knew that such a move was to court disaster, for my generation, too, had visited the mummy on our way to Central High School, and we considered her as much a part of our American heritage as George Washington, Robert E. Lee, or Theodore G. Bilbo.

But, in what may have been my finest hour, I saw my duty and I did it. And I firmly withdrew ”The Little Gypsy Lady” whose connection with Mississippi history was tenuous at best, from the Museum exhibits. She was relegated to a collection file room in the old Capitol to be seen only on demand by her most avid admirers. Her admirers all turned out to be avid, and they continued to demand her until the day when a staff member, annoyed by constant calls for our most popular tenant, stated in a speech that he would like to bury the mummy.

That blew it. The wire services picked up the story and the shot went round the world. The public from all over arose to defend “The Little Gypsy Lady.” We got insulting mail and insulting telephone calls; and one concerned gentle man wrote from Germany about “das mumi,” calling us bigots for some reason. Offers of adoption for the mummy flowed in. An undertaker from Ohio wanted “‘The Little Gypsy Lady” as an example of his art. An archaeologist said that when he examined her he found her to be a young female offered her a home provided that her esophagus came with her (translate: sarcophagus).

The strife went on, I held my ground, the story of Mississippi, as you will see, is told in thirty-three permanent exhibits in this Old Capitol Museum, and the small foreigner slept on in a collection file room. Way back in Dr. Rowland’s day he had a seal designed for the Department with the motto ‘Veritas,” or “Truth.” Seldom in our lifetime, however, are we justified for taking an unpopular stand on the side of the truth. The mummy proved to be a heartening exception. In the 1960s a young medical student at the University of Mississippi asked for permission to x-ray the mummy. In the interest of truth, permission was granted. The startling results of this scientific investigation were reported in The Mississippi History Newsletter as follows:

“Our mummy, who has been the star of our museum for as long as we can remember, was exposed as a fake when Gentry Yeatman, an enterprising Ole Miss medical student x-rayed the little Egyptian princess and found her heart was full of nails. Further, she had a German language newspaper in her left foot, and her right arm yielded a copy of The Milwaukee Journal, 1898. Again we note that things are not always what they seem, and the mummy is a dummy after all.”

(The mummy received a proper entombment in the Old Capitol, and comes on display every Halloween.)

Mississippi’s Greatest Chef

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.”

mitcham_creole_remoulade_whIn 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.

Legal Tomatoes

A 19th century U.S. Supreme Court decision involving tomatoes puts the court at odds with science, but in concord with commerce.

Botanically, tomatoes are fruit; a type of berry. In 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed duties on vegetables, but not on fruits. Some smart lawyer (we occasionally stumble upon evidence of these fabled creatures) representing not only a particular commercial interest but Mother Nature Herself argued that the tomato is indeed a (duty-free) fruit.

Alas for Mother Nature and the noble litigator championing her, on May 10, 1893, in Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (unanimously) that “based use and popular perception,” under customs regulations the tomato is a vegetable. This holding of the court applies only to legal interpretations. With appropriate deference to global hoards of bellicose taxonomists, the court acknowledged its limitations by not purporting to define tomatoes beyond the rule of American law.

A Tiki Tale

in 1950, when William Styron was a low-level, poorly-paid reader at McGraw-Hill , he rejected a book written by a Norwegian explorer about an 8000 mile voyage on a hand-built raft. The book, Kon Tiki, later became an international best-seller and made Thor Heyerdahl a legend.

Had Styron not been such a scribbler he might have realized that Heyerdahl’s book would catch the tiki wave that had been cresting in popular culture since U.S. troops came home from the Pacific. In 1947, James Michener won a Pulitzer for his Tales of the South Pacific, which were based on his service as a lieutenant commander in the New Hebrides Islands. The book was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into the musical South Pacific that premiered in 1949 on Broadway and ran for 1,925 performances.

It was Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who kicked off the mid-century tiki culinary craze. Raymond claimed to have been from Mandeville, LA, but grew up in Texas. After sailing the South Pacific, he changed his name to Don Beach, moved to California in 1934, and opened a Polynesian-themed bar, ‘Don the Beachcomber,’ in Palm Springs. Three years later, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, adopted a tiki theme for his restaurant in Oakland.

It wasn’t long before tiki got a lot of surf all the way to the East Coast. During the 50s and well into the 60s, tiki parties were a popular spin on those must-have patio barbecues, involving smoky tiki torches, flimsy pastel furniture, neon paper leis, and loathsome drinks with irritating, teeny-tiny umbrellas.

The mai tai became the quintessential tiki cocktail, and rumaki the quintessential tiki appetizer. Raymond is credited with inventing rumaki; it first appeared on the menu at Don’s, as “mock Polynesian”, chicken livers and water chestnuts marinated in soy sauce with ginger and brown sugar skewered in bacon and broiled. In time, rumaki became a cliché cocktail appetizer in dozens television shows and films.

Heat about a half cup of raw ginger in a cup of vegetable oil until bubbling. Keep at heat for about five minutes, drain and save the oil, and discard the ginger. Mix with lite soy 1:2 and brown sugar to taste. Cut the livers into bite-sized bits and whole water chestnuts into halves. Marinate both for at least an hour. Wrap  livers and chestnuts in bacon sliced to size, skewer, and grill or broil until bacon has crisped.

Pride and Potatoes

One day as a boy, a friend and I dared to enter his father’s tool shed, where among implements such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and girly magazines, we found a cabinet stocked with canned potato soup. When I asked why his daddy kept potato soup next to his chop saw, he said, “Momma won’t let him have it in the house.”

I was puzzled at the time, but now I understand. You see, a man’s house may be his castle, but his tool shed is his home, a sanctuary for the masculine spirit and as inviolate to intrusion as a nunnery. A man may keep things there which have no place in the house, even something as seemingly innocuous as potato soup.

Potato soup is neither good nor bad in itself; like Prince Hal, it is poor only in the company it keeps, and as is the case for so many of our foods, its company is often poverty itself. Memories of hard times survived among the men and women of my parents’ generation; after the hard years had ended and victory in the Good War made them members of the most affluent society on earth, they found themselves living in a world that stretched far beyond the dirt roads many grew up on, and they were obliged to learn the difficult lessons a newly-acquired middle-class life required of them.

For many, that meant ridding themselves of aspects of their lives that in this new world were not quite picture-perfect. Potato soup, to my friend’s mother, was not part of her perfect picture; it was Depression food, something people ate when they were poor and down on their luck. Now that they lived in town in a new brick house, had two cars in the garage, and she was secretary of the Twentieth-Century Club, potato soup —so simple, so basic, so very good—had been banished.

Others hearkened back, as my friend’s father did, to those days when a family’s existence was dependent upon making do. They also remembered—even as they trod the carpeted floors of the air-conditioned homes where their difficult children were growing into strangers in their midst—the foods they knew and loved, even if it were biscuits folded over a piece of fried streak-`o-lean they took to school, red-rind cheese and saltines from the store down the road, or chicken and dumplings made to stretch an old hen between ten people.

The foods you love best are often those of your childhood, and my friend’s father found the warmth of potato soup irresistible. I can still conjure up an image of this man sitting out in his shed and opening a can of soup, heating it on a little electric eye, eating it and thinking about his own momma standing at her wood stove in a pair of old slippers, her hair limp with sweat and tied up with a penny piece of ribbon, cooking the only thing she had to cook—potatoes—into a soup for her family. I can also imagine this man reminiscing upon this while his wife teetered around the kitchen in high heels, her hair lacquered into a $5 hair-do she had redone twice a week cooking store-bought stuff on an electric range.

She probably remembered her Momma in much the same way as her husband did his, but for my friend’s mother it was a bitter memory, and her efforts to obliterate that—to her mind painful—image of poverty extended to those around her. Bound and determined to eradicate whatever she felt was coarse or common about her and others, she sacrificed upon the altar of her misguided pride the very foods that she secretly loved and likely learned to make at her mother’s side.