Frank Hains

On July 15, 1975, Jackson was stunned by the brutal murder of a man whose cultural contributions to the community still reverberate in the city.

Frank Woodruff Hains, Jr. was born July 7, 1926 in Wood County, West Virginia. After graduating from Marietta College in Ohio and serving two years in the military, Hains began a radio career that took him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he became active in both the Vicksburg Little Theater and the Jackson Little Theater. A few years later he moved to Jackson, beginning his twenty-year career with the Jackson Daily News as literary critic and champion of the arts. He remained active in the Jackson Little Theater and was one of the founders of New Stage Theater in 1966.

In addition to his position at the Jackson Daily News, through his work as actor, director, and set designer for the local theaters as well as his contributions to the New York Times, Hains helped high schools and colleges in the area with their productions. In 1958 he received the National Pop Wagner Award for work with young people, and in 1970 the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television presented him with its Distinguished Public Service Award.

Hains was murdered in his home in Jackson. Two weeks later, this memorial written by his close friend Eudora Welty appeared in the combined Sunday Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News (27 July 1975):

IN MEMORIUM
By Eudora Welty

For all his years with us, Frank Hains wrote on the arts with perception and clarity, with wit and force of mind. And that mind was first-rate — informed, uncommonly quick and sensitive, keenly responsive. But Frank did more than write well on the arts. He cared. And he worked, worked, worked for their furtherance in this city and state. He was a doer and a maker and a giver. Talented and versatile to a rare degree, he lived with the arts, in their thick.

So it was by his own nature as a man as well as in the whole intent of his work that he was a positive critic, and never a defeating one. The professional standards he set for art, and kept, himself, as a critic, were impeccable and even austere. At the same time he was the kindest, most chivalrous defender of the amateur. And it was not only the amateurs — it was not artists at all — who knew this well: his busy life, as he went about his work and its throng of attendant interests, was made up of thousands of unrecorded kindnesses.

I speak as one working in the arts — and only one, of a very great number indeed — who came to know at first hand, and well, what ever-present perception and insight, warmth of sympathy, and care for the true meaning, Frank in his own work brought to a work of theirs. The many things he has done in behalf of my own books I wouldn’t be able to even count; his dramatic productions of my stories are among the proudest and happiest events of my working life. He was a dear and admired friend for twenty years.

Frank gave many young talents their first hope, sometimes their first chance, and I am sure he never could have let any talent down. He didn’t let any of us down, but was our constant and benevolent and thoroughgoing supporter, a refresher of our spirits, a celebrator along with us of what we all alike, in the best ways we were able, were devoting our lives to.

What his work contributed — the great sum — had an authority of a kind all its own. I wonder if it might not have had a double source: his lifelong enchantment with the world of art, and an unusual gift for communicating his pleasure in it to the rest of us. Plus the blessed wish to do it.

We are grateful.

(Hains was buried in Big Tygart Cemetery, Rockport, WV)

An Epicure at Piney Woods

By the middle of the last century, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known to the world of letters as M.F.K. Fisher, had established herself as the preeminent culinary essayist in the English language. Her visits to Dijon, Vevey and Provence resulted in works such as Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942) and The Gastronomical Me (1941). Those and her translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin (1949) had garnered her praises from around the globe. W.H. Auden said of her, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose,” no small acclaim in the age of Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck.

In 1964, Fisher had just finished the stunning Map of Another Town, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker in January. Subtitled “A Memoir of Provence”, the work marks a departure from her gastronomical memoir-cum-recipe format since the book is built not around food but around places: the cours Mirabear, the Deaux Garcons, La Toronde and other sites associated with Aix-en-Provence. She had established herself as a writer, but she had already told friends she wanted to do something different: she wanted to teach. Other than a writing workshop in Utah in 1954 and various public speaking engagements, she had no teaching experience.

She also lacked sufficient academic credits to qualify for certification at public schools, but private schools like Piney Woods offered leeway in the matter of credentials and she entertained the idea of teaching English literature, basic composition, home economics (try to imagine taking home ec from M.F.K. Fisher) and tutoring students in French, Spanish and Italian. “I’ll be working with students in advanced high school and junior college who are preparing for the ministry, the law, teaching and medicine. I’ll also be working with students who have come from the most God-forsaken rural areas in the state. The main thing is that they will be there because they WILL it, and not because it is the easiest, coziest and most indicated way to social and economic success.”

Fisher first heard about Piney Woods in the early 1920s when their gospel choir performed at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, where the teen-aged Mary Frances and her younger sister were enrolled. For some time afterwards, her mother Edith subscribed to the Piney Woods bulletin and regularly sent donations of money and books, which her daughter continued to do for decades. In her letters to family and friends in the early months of 1964, M.F. wrote of her preliminary discussion with Dr. Laurence Jones, the founder of Piney Woods, about her plans to volunteer her services at the school and her reasons for doing so, saying that she had “almost finished the active mother-role and that I am destined to go to waste unless I make some strong move.”

The year 1964 was a sadly historic one for Mississippi; the state had become a battleground in the American struggle for civil rights. Fisher confessed that she was no martyr to the cause of racial equality, and “as for accepting and being accepted, I honestly think that would soon take care of itself, easily and thoroughly . . . there would be suspicion of my motives at first, as is very understandable . . . so many white people want to ‘help’ but, are conditioned too far back to be anything but self-conscious about it, and I seem to be born without a racial conscience or whatever it is.” She was not being altruistic at all, she was doing this for herself because after so many comfortable years in St. Helena and so many years of raising her daughters to be citizens of the world, she now had her back to the wall and needed Piney Woods as much as or more than the school needed her.

After sharing her plans with family (to mixed responses), Fisher boarded the California Zephyr in San Francisco on June 22. Once in Chicago, she boarded a train bound for Jackson, some twenty miles from Piney Woods. During that time radio broadcasts and news coverage focused on the disappearance of two white civil rights workers from New York, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and their black activist host, James Chaney, who were the first casualties of what was to become known as the “Freedom Summer”. On August 4, the FBI would discover the inhumed bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and the South would explode in acts of violence and bigotry

But at Piney Woods, the focus was on work and education. Fisher said that the students were “too busy for trouble.” She eased into teaching with noncredit courses on fables (“from Aesop to Thurber”) and also tutored a handful of students. She lived in the comparative luxury of an air-conditioned mobile home of a faculty member who was away on vacation and ate most of her meals in the dining hall, which she considered disastrous because of the emphasis on starchy foods. It should be noted that Fisher did dine at the famous Revolving Tables in the Mendenhall Hotel, but records of the meal and her impressions of it are if in existence unavailable.

Fisher was at Piney Woods for a very short time, less than six months all told: two school terms, a summer and a fall. Despite the miserable Mississippi summer heat, her first term was the happiest. She wrote, “For the first time in many years what creative energy I have is being directed toward other things than my professional and emotional self.” She spoke of “wooing the students” to make herself acceptable, and her non-credit courses were popular. She talked of her time with Dr. Jones, who was away from campus most of the time on fund-raising junkets. During his absence, the dean of the school Dr. Chandler was in charge, and Fisher described her as a “somewhat ridiculous little figure”. Fisher was soon to tangle with the steely Chandler and became outraged at a librarian who would not check out books “to NEGRO students!”

During the October break between the summer and fall semesters, things began to go awry. Even as she boarded the plane in Jackson, “I was surrounded by men and women and their frightened children speaking Mississippi dialects, several civil rights workers were flying out, the plane was stiff with heavily armed police, and I became more convinced that I could never come back.” Though she spent her break at a beach house in Bridgehampton, N.Y., attending Broadway musicals and dining with Truman Capote, her mentally unstable daughter Anna lost her job and became pregnant, her friend and editor Pat Convici became gravely ill, and her sister Anne was also in poor health. When she returned to Piney Woods, she threw herself back into teaching, but the daily grind soon began to wear on her. After a difficult Thanksgiving with her family in California, when she returned to Piney Woods in December she asked to be relieved of her teaching duties for the remainder of the fall semester. Her plans were to return to California to her daughters Norah and Anna, but, incensed that she seemed to have abandoned them in their time of need (Norah was by now caring for the pregnant and unstable Anna) for a group of Negro students in the middle of nowhere, they both insisted that she shouldn’t come.

Fisher left Piney Woods for Chicago in January 1965 and never returned. She had lost 20 pounds and was absorbed in self-reflection. Looking back on that time she wrote, “I began to come to life again.” She later described her time in Mississippi as “a pit of non-existence” she subjected herself to. In Chicago, she began writing again and sold some articles she had written long ago. “I thought a great deal about Piney Woods – the iron hand of Dr. Chandler, the librarian who didn’t want books taken out of the library, the conformity. People want me to write controversial stuff about it, but I am still too close, and I do not want to hurt the old man who founded the school. He is a rascal, but he is also something of a real saint, in my eyes. I am making many notes, of course, and may some day be able to tell what I think is the truth about the basically noble but infamous place.”

These notes were never assembled, much less expounded upon. In Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher, edited by David Lazar (University Press of Mississippi: 1992), Katherine Henderson in 1990 describes this exchange. “Mississippi?” I ask. Fisher sighs. “In 1964 the kids were all gone and I thought I’d find out if the South was as bad as I thought. So I went to teach at the Piney Woods School.” Piney Woods was a school for black students; the faculty, says Fisher, was half black and half white. She taught English. “The South was worse than I expected. I didn’t go to town at all while I was there.” But why did she go in the first place? Did she plan to write a book, to fight a fight? She looks slightly horrified. “God, no, I wasn’t planning on writing anything about it. And I didn’t go there to fight anything. I just went.” Fisher smiles a little, remembering. “I found it took six months before the kids would eyeball me. But after six months I was without color, and so were they.”

She smiles. “I was not invited back,” she adds with a certain amount of pride, “because I was a trouble maker.” She seems pleased by this, and then abruptly stops talking.

Mystic Mayo

It’s difficult for us now to imagine mayonnaise as exotic, but  Welty remembers its advent in Jackson as an event of near-theatrical proportions.

Welty’s use of foods in her fiction brings two notable examples to my mind; the “green-tomato pickle” in Why I Live at the P.O. and the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, not to mention the groaning boards in her Delta Wedding. But she also wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks that I know of, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in his The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was doubtless written in the 1930s.

The introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition, rich with Welty’s seasoned voice. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. I’m including a part of the introduction here, specifically that section dealing with mayonnaise because it explains to a “t” just how exotic this now-prosaic kitchen item was then.

“As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph. Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch.”

Welty goes on to describe a typical Jackson kitchen in the twenties and thirties, and mentions a great many women who made significant contributions to the local cuisine. If you can find a copy of The Jackson Cookbook, buy it, read about Jackson’s culinary history from a master of her craft and cook the superlative recipes. No wrong could come from it at all.

Breakfast Matters

The decline of breakfast as a substantial meal in American households can be traced back to a town on the Kalamazoo River in Calhoun County, Michigan.

The town’s name is Battle Creek, the hometown of John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg, the tenth son of a broom-maker, grew up in the frontier town, went east to medical school and returned home to take charge of the Western Health Reform Institute. This institution was founded by a Seventh Day Adventist couple, Sister Ellen Gould White and her husband Brother James, to promote the pre-apocalyptic health-giving regimen an angel detailed to Sister White in a vision on June 6, 1863. The angel instructed Sister White to eat two meals a day, to avoid meat, salt, cake, lard, spices, coffee, tea and tobacco, to rely on graham bread, fruits and vegetables, to drink only water, never to pay physicians and to trust in the healing power of God. They were among the country’s first health food nuts.

After Kellogg returned to Battle Creek—his education “back East” had been paid for by the Whites—he renamed the Institute the Medical and Surgical Sanitarium, and soon what had been a modest farmhouse was transformed into a six-story Italian Renaissance structure with a solarium, a gymnasium, half a mile of glassed-in halls containing palm and banana trees and an Acidophilus Milk Bar. Building on the work of Sylvester Graham, father of the graham cracker, and Dr. James Caleb Jackson, who in 1863 came out with a breakfast food made out of broken-up whole wheat bricks called Granula, Kellogg came out with his own cereal. For some unfathomable reason, Kellogg called his concoction Granula as well. Dr. Jackson promptly sued and won judgment against Kellogg. So Kellogg renamed his cereal Granola, which was, admittedly, not much of a stretch.

If nothing else a bold plagiarist, Kellogg did not learn the error of his bravura from this first legal fracas. C.W. Post, a local competitor, and once a patient at the Institute who had taken Kellogg’s cure without success, was eventually healed of his maladies by a Christian Science practitioner who told him to eat what he pleased came. So Post established his own retreat—La Vita Inn—and in 1895 he brought out Postum, a coffee substitute made of wheat, bran and molasses. His first big success was with a product called Grape-Nuts. But when Post came out with Grape-Nuts in 1898, Kellogg promptly came out with Gran-Nuts. Post threatened court action and Gran-Nuts disappeared from the market. By then, though, the ground had been broken, and soon, through their appeal to the health-conscious, their convenience, and their promotion by means of an aggressive, hugely successful marketing, cold cereals came to dominate the American breakfast table.

But before the advent of the cereal kings, America’s Lucullan breakfasts included tea and toast, eggs, fresh fish, ham, sausages, pigeons on toast (probably passenger pigeons, now extinct), and, of course, oysters. Again, here it must be noted that a substantial breakfast was important to a population that largely supported itself by physical labor of some sort. This was especially true in the heavily agricultural South. Even after WWII, when the urbanization of the South really began and more and more white-collar jobs opened up, many if not most Southern households still ate a hot, substantial breakfast. But as more Southern women moved into the workforce, these breakfasts became a thing of the past, and cold cereals or often simply toast and coffee came to dominate the breakfast menu because of their sheer convenience. Breakfast became more of a rural and weekend phenomenon.

The next major blow against breakfast as a prandial mainstay came again under the aegis of healthy eating. The anti-cholesterol craze that started in the 1970’s seems such a heaven-sent blessing for the breakfast cereals industry that a conspiracist might well believe that it’s a plot involving the AMA and Battle Creek. Because of their high saturated fat and cholesterol content, medical science condemned such breakfast staples as eggs, pork and butter as primary villains in the crime of heart disease. Americans were urged to abandon their sinful eating habits and to pursue the righteous path of low-fat cooking. “Low-fat,” “reduced fat,” and “lite” prepared foods proliferated. Cookbooks promoting a low-fat cuisine sold in the millions. Chefs radically altered their recipes to adapt to the changing market. Salt, too, came under attack as a leading factor in the promulgation of hypertension.

Breakfast fared a little better in restaurants. Though outside the metropolitan areas Southerners usually had little opportunity—or inclination, nor means, for that matter—to eat out, every little Southern town supported a diner where you could go to get breakfast and a plate lunch. The breakfasts were of the traditional sort: ham and eggs, sausage, biscuits, red-eye or sawmill gravy and of course grits. These breakfasts were once a meeting-place for people from all walks of life, especially in county seats on court days and in political years, but eventually they came to be largely patronized by blue-collar types: policemen, teamsters, construction and maintenance workers, farmers or cattlemen in town on business and the like. But by the Seventies, breakfasts had largely lost their appeal for diners because they had become more health-conscious and had less and less time for a morning meal.

Soon many if not most Americans came to view a plate of country ham or sausage with fried eggs and buttered grits, lard biscuits and sawmill gravy as something of a cardiac time bomb. A bowl of cold cereal with a piece of whole-wheat toast, a glass of “fresh frozen” orange juice and a cup of decaffeinated coffee seemed an attractive alternative to a population hell-bent toward senility.

Vicksburg’s Second Surrender

It’s somewhat of an irony that Vicksburg,Mississippi, a city in rebellion against the United States during the Civil War, surrendered on July 4. What insight does this offer into the consequent patriotism of Southern Americans? How long was it after the Civil War and Reconstruction that Southerners came to identify with, support and yes perhaps even love the United States of America?

The fact is that Vicksburg did surrender to Grant on July 4, 1863. The city’s citizens and defenders were simply exhausted to the point of desperation by a siege that had lasted forty-seven days, and Pemberton, commanding general of the Confederate forces—himself a native of Pennsylvania—hoped for sympathetic terms from Grant by surrendering on Independence Day. Grant paroled the captured military not because of the date, but because he never imagined that given their state of dejection any would ever fight again; some, however, did.

Thereafter for eighty-two years, until July 4, 1945, a scarce two months after Allied troops under Eisenhower accepted the surrender of the Axis forces in Europe, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi held no public observance of Independence Day, and even then there were cries of “Sacrilege!” from older residents, and by all accounts the celebration was a muted affair. The following year some attempt was made to make the July 4th celebration more overt, but even then opposition was offered by those who clung to the memory of that summer morning in 1863 when the hungry, weary city garrison of 30,000 laid down its arms and the city silently watched as Grant’s army occupied a city draped not in bunting but in mourning.

Two years later, in 1947, quite a different situation presented when General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and current chief of staff of the U.S. Army, accepted invitations from Senator James Eastland, Representative John Bell Williams and Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi to make the Fourth of July address in Vicksburg. It’s conceivable that Eastland, Fielding and Wright extended the invitation in hopes of luring Eisenhower to run on the Democratic ticket, though it’s more likely that the three simply intended to make political hay out of the general’s visit. Ike, on the other hand, a committed scholar of military history, was eager to see the military park, which for the record had been established in 1899.

To be sure, Ike had likely been apprised of the holiday’s history in the city, but he was also already treading turbid political waters. Later that month, on July 11, President Truman offered to run as Ike’s running mate on the Democratic ticket if Douglas MacArthur won the Republican nomination, but Eisenhower was still struggling to stay above politics, as had William T. Sherman had upon learning that he was being considered as a possible Republican candidate for the presidential election of 1884. (Sherman declined, saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”) Eisenhower had not announced any party affiliation and cited Army regulation 600-10.18.i forbidding partisan political activity by serving officers. Eisenhower eventually defeated Robert Taft for the Republication nomination in 1952 and won in a landslide that excluded the Solid South. His running-mate Richard Nixon was to flip that thirty years later.

It must be said that Southern patriotism was certainly well-established long before Ike came to Vicksburg in 1947. Florence King states that the rest of the nation was surprised at the numbers of Southerners who flocked to recruiting stations during the Spanish-American War (1898), but then Havana is on our doorstep, as was dramatically brought back home in October, 1962. Spanish-American vet Teddy Roosevelt—whose mother was a Georgia belle—built the biggest navy in the world and expanded U.S. influence over the globe, and the South was a strong participant in the various chauvinistic, jingoistic isolationist movements that swept the country in the periods leading up to the two world wars. But it wasn’t until after the Allied victory in World War II, and the return of Southern G.I.s from far-flung corners of the earth, that patriotism became solidly entrenched in the Southern Zeitgeist. Vicksburg’s surrender to Eisenhower stands as a watershed for that mindset, which is evidently solidly entrenched today.

So it was that on July 4, 1947, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, instead of laying down its arms, opened them for another U.S. general. An estimated 50,000 people attended the festivities, which included picnic lunches spread in public parks, plenty of florid speeches, miles of bunting and fireworks over the broad waters of the Mississippi River. The celebration also included a solemn noon-day salute to honor the memory of the Confederate casualties of the siege; the city had forgiven, but not forgotten.

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 but who himself 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 strings. 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.

(My profound and affectionate thanks to Sabina Mitcham Donnamario for her friendship and help in writing this article. Thank you, Sabina.)

The Yellow Rose of Schoona

A poignant tale of love, loss and thralldom, doubtless embellished with the romance of legend as tales of that time often are, this story was published almost a century ago in The Calhoun County Monitor-Herald.

In the cold, dreary winter of 1852, just after the organization of Calhoun County, quite a number of citizens of Spring and Brushy Creeks were sitting in a rude log cabin by the roadside, where John McCord kept a store, lightly stocked with the necessities of life, discussing the new county and squirting tobacco on the old, rickety stove. Bob Brown, the Postmaster, (for there had recently been established at this place a post office called Banner), came around and stood in the door. Snow and sleet were falling thick and fast and the cold north wind howled through the towering pines and drifted snow against the rude fences. All nature seemed at war–and the howling storm quelled the spirit of those pioneers, who were acquainted with trouble and knew danger and privations.

“The coldest day I ever felt,” said Bob. “Everything outside is freezing.”

While the men were buttoning up their coats, preparatory to breasting the storm en route to their homes, Bob looked eastward along the road and saw a lone woman trudging through the snow storm, coming in the direction of the store. She soon appeared at the door and asked permission to warm at the fire. The gentlemen gallantly gave way and tendered her a seat near the stove.

“Bad weather to be out,” remarked McCord, the merchant. “Quite unpleasant,” replied the woman in soft, sweet voice. She was well and comfortably clad, and had in her hand a well filled grip. She was tall and well formed, with a handsome figure and soft, appealing eyes. Her hair was long, dark and wavy, and her skin was a soft yellow–not quite as dark as the Indian. Her features were animated and her countenance sparkled with every change of expression. Her step, quick and elastic; voice, soft and musical; her language, pure and faultless English and her age about 22 years. The men soon started for home through the drifting storm, and left McCord, Brown and Sid Brantley and the woman still clustered about the stove. The able, big-hearted Brantley asked the woman how it happened that she was caught out in the storm, and where she was going in all this bad weather.

After some hesitation, she answered in a low, musical voice, “I am part Indian and I am making my way to the Indian Nation, where my tribe, the Chickasaws, went in 1836. I was then a small girl living with my grandmother. My mother, a Chickasaw died when I was a baby. My father, a white man, went with the tribe. My grandmother, being very old, was left with me. After grandmother died, I was taken by a nice family of whites, who gave me a home, taught me the art of dressmaking and educated me. But I could not forget my brothers and sisters in the Indian Nation and at last resolved at every hazard, to make my way to them. I have no money or friends that I can call upon for assistance, so I am trying to make my way afoot.”

Her simple story touched Mr. Brantley’s heart, and he cordially invited her to his nearby home. She, with some hesitation, accepted his generous invitation and accompanied him home, where she remained until the storm was over. In conversation, on the way home, Brantley asked her name. She modestly answered, “Bombazelle McAllister”. She was introduced to the family and assured that she could make her home with them until the weather settled. She was assigned a room with Brantley’s oldest daughter. The next day was still cold and blustery and the ladies were confined to their rooms. The stranger soon became familiar with the family. Miss Brantley had a nice new dress pattern she was preparing to make up. Bombazelle examined the goods with great care and suggested how it should be designed. Sissy was delighted. Bombazelle took her measure–a thing heretofore unknown in these wild woods–and she assisted in making the dress. The family was delighted with the attractive design and the gracious fit of the dress. Hence the news spread rapidly throughout the neighborhood that a marvelous designer and dressmaker was stopping at Sid Brantley’s–and the blushing lassies in all the region gathered ’round to have Bombazelle cut and fashion their dresses. She moved from home to home as her services were requested, and at night, occupied rooms and beds with the young ladies of the community.

The snow storm had passed, but Bombazelle remained, kept busy cutting out and making dresses. She was well paid and was kindly received by every family. She was ready and willing to give the young ladies instructions in cutting materials and in dressmaking. She was a fine talker and a lovely girl, her color rather dark, but being part Indian, this was understood. She soon became the Belle of Banner, and the boys called her “The Yellow Rose of Schoona”, and she received the attention of all the nice young men in the neighborhood. John McCord fell desperately in love with Bombazelle, and after a spirited contest with the young swains about Banner, won her heart. McCord was, as the term was known in those far-off days, “well-off”. He had a good house, servants and quite a number of Negro slaves. The couple was married at Brantley’s home, Esquire John Hankins making the happy couple man and wife. There was quite a gathering at the wedding, and, as was the custom, all who wished, were privileged to kiss the bride, as did some of the girls and women present.

The springtime in all its beauty was rapidly approaching. The dogwoods were budding, the birds were all a-twitter and the geese were flying north to their faraway homes. Bombazelle was happy in the home of John McCord. She had a husband who was a leader in the young county and was loved and admired by everyone. She also had Old Sylvia, her trusted servant, and her flock of boys and girls, to attend to her every want. She kept a close eye on the servants, and they had to “toe the mark”. She had her rooms well furnished, wore wonderful clothes, and kept everything about the place in “apple pie” order. Every servant jumped when she spoke, for she was a firm mistress, and ran the house with energy and ability. McCord, too, was happy with his beautiful wife and his elegantly arranged home. The “Yellow Rose” was happy and excited because she was the leader in style and fashion in the whole county. She was constantly sought out and consulted about dresses and was a close friend to the young belles for miles around.

Spring opened in all its glory. The whippoorwills sang at evening, the sun smiled all day on the new fields, just wrested from the primeval forests, and the birds and animals made love in the swamps and endless forests. Late one afternoon, a fine looking gentleman was seen riding a splendid blooded horse into Banner. Mrs. McCord (Bombazelle) observed him–and, in consternation, made it convenient to disappear at once. The traveler alighted and entered the saddle shop owned by J. Brown, and after passing the compliments of the season, inquired if there had been seen in that place a woman who had disappeared. He gave an accurate description of Mrs. McCord. Bob hesitated, looked wise and gave an evasive answer. Night was approaching, so the stranger asked if there was a house of entertainment in town. Brown directed him to Mr. Arnold’s home, just west of town. He made his business known to Mr. Arnold, and said he had traced the woman to Banner–and that she was his Negro house servant and seamstress–and that she had run away from the family home at Aberdeen, Mississippi. Arnold repeated to him the story of Bombazelle’s appearance, her captivation of the community and her marriage to John McCord months before.

“That’s my Negro,” said the stranger, “she is almost white in appearance and is very smart.”

It is hardly necessary to add that the people of Banner were stirred up and greatly excited by his revelation. The belles and beaus were crestfallen. The girls who had entertained and associated with Bombazelle were dumbfounded. The idea of having so cordially entertained this servant in their homes was humiliating. And the young men who had called upon Bombazelle and sought her hand were shocked beyond expression while the older men, who had so fondly kissed the yellow blushing bride, were punched in the ribs by their wives for having embraced the woman in their presence. But the “Yellow Rose”! Where was she? McAllister (the stranger) could not find her anywhere. She had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. McCord was wild and miserable. His happiness was swept away in the wrinkling of an eye. Dispirited and troubled, he stood about, wondering what to do! His wife, with his knowledge, had been secreted in a cabin on Schoona, there to await the issue. McCord was a good man, law-abiding and honest, yet he did not know but that McAllister was a fraud.

McAllister posted off to Hartford (the community now known as Oldtown, which was the county seat at that time), here he learned that the marriage certificate had been issued to John McCord and Bombazelle McAllister, and that it had been returned by Esq. Hankins. He at once instituted suit against John McCord and his securities, for marrying a Negro, contrary to the laws of the State of Mississippi. McCord’s friends were in close consultation all day, devising ways and means to extricate McCord from his dilemma. Brantley, with a keen eye to business, also went to Hartford, and there met McAllister. Brantley, being always a friend for anyone in distress, had a long interview with McAllister, and induced him to suspend legal proceedings until he could see McCord, assuring him that it was a fraud practiced on McCord, and McCord truly believed that she was part Indian, but had never dreamed that she was a runaway slave–and that she would be found and returned to McAllister. Old Sylvia was the happiest Negro in the county. She and her children clapped their hands at being relieved of such a hard head mistress.

Brantley returned to McAllister that afternoon, after having a long talk with McCord and Brown, entertained him that night and promised him that Bombazelle would be forthcoming in the morning. So, in the morning, bright and early, “The Yellow Rose of Schoona” fondly embraced Mr. McCord, bid him an affectionate farewell, and promptly reported to her master, and they departed for Aberdeen.

Editor’s Note: [1972] In the 1940’s, Dr. W. A. Evans of Aberdeen researched The Monitor Herald story of Bombazelle McAllister in the county courthouse records at Aberdeen. He found advertisements by the man McAllister, giving notice that his slave Bombazelle had run away. After McAllister took her back to Aberdeen, he sold her at once, as she had given trouble before. The money paid for Bombazelle went into the building of a new McAllister home, located in the city of Aberdeen. Dr. Evans reported that no further evidence of Bombazelle exists after she was sold.

Daniel Gerhartz

A History of Jackson, 1865-1950

“When were Jackson’s historic neighborhoods developed?” “How did the city grow during different historic periods?” “What did Jackson look like as it evolved from the nineteenth to the twentieth century?” The answers to these (and thousands of other) questions are found here, in From Frontier Capital to Modern City: A History of Jackson, Mississippi’s 1 Built Environment, 1865-1950. While the document is not dated, it was likely published sometime in 2000. This project must have taken several years, drawing upon the resources of the Mississippi State Archives, Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH); the Records Management Division of the City of Jackson; and private collections of photographs from local citizens. A key player in this effort was Helene Ascher Rotwein—whose job in Jackson’s Department of Planning and Development was no doubt instrumental—and other members of the LeFleur’s Bluff Historic Foundation. While there is no index, the table of contents is incredibly detailed, as are the references cited, and the voluminous footnotes are incredibly precise. Click on the annexation map below to access the work.

Bluebill’s Barbecue

This delightfully warm and rambunctious account of a political barbecue in Mississippi was submitted to the Federal Writer’s Project in the early 1940s. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that the excoriating political jargon may well have been patterned after one of T.G. Bilbo’s more vituperative speeches. Finding that the cook and I share a surname was a pleasant surprise, but entirely coincidental.

Just as sure as taxes come due before the year is out, politics comes of age in Mississippi ere fall settles down. Our crop has been made and, plow-weary as the soil itself, we take to politics like some folks take to drink. It’s the only sure-fire emotional outlet we know.

An office seeker with his nose to the wind senses that this is the time to ply his trade. Being one of us he knows that the voting fruit is now growing in bunches and ready for the plucking. ware, too, that the common run of old-time picnics is as dead as last year’s boll weevil, he gathers his, cohorts about the conference table, calls for a pooling of resources, and schemes up a barbecue. For, voting year or not, Mississippi politics takes on the nature of an epidemic and we rely on the mass eating of barbecued meat as a counter-irritant.

Even the novice candidates are invited to show what they can do, but the cook and the principal speaker should be old hands, famous for miles around, for we have a long way to come and the fare must be to our liking. Certainly, if the candidate for high office is one of our most famous and able villifiers, and if the pit artist is Bluebill Yancy, we’ll be there.

Bluebill is a black man with a head like a cypress knee. They call him blood brother to the Ugly Man, but if he’s short on looks, he’s long on cooking, and barbecue meat is his specialty. Bluebill and his henchmen are hard at work when we arrive on the grounds so we know that the weather, at least, is favoring the candidates. For Blue bill works according to the stages of the moon and has been known to call the whole thing off at the slightest show of thunder on cooking night. We pass the time of day with Dicey, Bluebill’s wife, who isn’t allowed within smelling distance of the pit until she sees Bluebill sharpen up his knives for the carving; the meat can’t “breathe freely” with a woman cook around.

We pay our respects to Uncle Si Curtis who has already nailed a plank between two trees for his lemonade stand. Uncle Si is one of the best singing school leaders in the county, and when he swings into “Mercy’s Free,” where it says “Swell, oh, swell, the heavenly chorus,” he can be heard as far away as the old burnt schoolhouse. Using the same technique to drum up trade for his spring-water lemonade, he leans against a tree and opens up:

“Ice cold lemonade!
Made in the shade,
Stirred with a spade,
Good enough for any old maid!”

Uncle Si’s crowd thins out as the preliminary speaking begins. We listen to the soaring oratory with one ear and the sizzling of Bluebill’s meat The beef has been cooking all night over the embers of green hickory wood and its peppery odor has had our nose twitching since we first drove up. Bluebill’s pit is a ten-footer with wire mesh stretched over a fire coaxed down to smokeless coals. We pace the pit with him on one of his endless rounds — up one side to turn the meat, down the other to baste it with his mopping sauce. As the moist, brown hunks of beef approach perfection, Bluebill continues his rounds, proud as a monkey with a tin tail.

While the main speaker is warming up, we move from one group of friends to another. The sonorous voice damns the tariff and the Republican party. We nod our head. He touches on the sacredness of the ballot, the virtues of Southern womanhood, and we are in accord. He promised to fight, bleed and die to keep the ship of state a float and we say “amen.”

He pauses for dramatic effect, and after mopping his perspiring brow, starts in to rant, abuse, belittle and attack the opposition. We edge closer because this is what we came to hear. The speaker describes his opponent as a “shallow-brained, slack-jawed liar; a bull ape of Mississippi politics; a grave baboon cavorting like a fat pony in high oats.” We push a bit nearer the speaker’s stand, anxious to hear every word, hoping he’ll let the hide go with the horns and the tallow.

“Like a parasite of the highest rank,” the candidate roars, “he has been feeding from the public trough for twenty years, fattening the bosom of his trousers. It is time that the voters of this commonwealth rise up in indignation and turn him out to pasture and elevate to office men who won’t jump down their throats and gallop their insides out.”

Whether we agree with the speaker or not, we admit it’s pretty pert language, We figure maybe he is right, but for the moment the mention of feeding has suggested something and soon we take ourselves over to the pits to see how Bluebill is getting along with the beef, which has been roasting over the hickory fire for fourteen hours. Taking his cue from the orator, Bluebill dabs on more hot stuff, dressing it down with the same vigor the candidate uses on his opponent.

There is always an outsider who doesn’t know any better than to ask Blue bill for his mopping sauce recipe. His answer is as evasive as it is voluble. He recites it like a grocery list: vinegar, bay leaves, lemon, paprika, pickling spice, onions and garlic. To make it “good and delicious” Bluebill says go heavy on the garlic and paprika. If he is really annoyed by the questioning, he will recommend the generous use of a butter substitute as the base for his concoction. If only mildly so he will suggest cow butter. Catch him off guard when things are going well in the pits, and Bluebill will admit that he, himself, uses nothing but chicken fat.

Bluebill, having made what he calls his “politeness” turns to mopping his beef, and the bewildered recipe-seeker has to listen once more to the politician who, at this time, is working up to the climax punch. In a moment he will let us have it with both fists and leave us groggy and hanging on the ropes. Recoiling from the political punches, a neighbor asks us to have a drink of his best corn liquor, and we don’t care if we do. The candidates, wilted and weary from their efforts on the speakers’ stand, likewise have a good stiff one back in the bushes.

Meanwhile there is a mass movement toward the long table. Dicey paddles over from the edge of the clearing and gets there just as Bluebill draws a blade across the first outside piece. Some of our own women lay off cooing at the babies and line up behind the table to make the same woman-noise over the cakes and potato salad. For our part, we pass up all such trimmings. Armed with a slice of bread and a hand quicker than Bluebill’s knife, we aim for the outside piece, and make it.

The crowd gives way a little for the speakers to be served. After having bethumped each other with hard words, the candidates chat over their food as though it had miraculously brought them to terms. We ourselves share a dipper of spring water with a man we never liked and politics for the moment is forgotten. Even a Mississippi man just can’t keep on devouring barbecued beat and political speeches without gradually losing appetite. But we sorta have to stick around in the afternoon to hear our neighbors who are running for local office. We sit back to watch their antics and stay ready to have a good time if they work up a spat about something. Actually, what’s on our minds is the need for getting along home to see about the stock. It’s a far piece and we want to be there before first dark.

A Farish Street Financial Timeline

 

 

DATE

AMOUNT ($)

SOURCE

PURPOSE

1 10/9/81

200,000

CDBG* Revitalization study
2

34,000

CDBG Extension of study
3 7/23/82

100,000

Grant, National Endowment for the Humanities via JSU Historical survey of Farish Street
4 12/10/89

1,600,000

CDBG Infrastructure, business loans, housing
5

85,000

CDBG Farish Street park
6 11/22/94

50,000

Jackson/Hinds Co. Mary Means (Means Consulting)
7 11/22/95

1,500,000

State of Ms. Alamo renovation
8 3/7/96

130,000

National Trust for Historic Preservation/State of Ms. Renovation of Scott Ford House
9

200,000

Acquisition of property in Farish St. district
10 3/26/98

2,500,000

National Equity Fund; $600,000 from local banks; $350,000, CDBG (city) “Rehab” of 37 historic houses
11 4/27/99

6,000,000

State of Ms. Farish St. revitalization
12 4/27/99

6,000,000

Fannie Mae Farish St. revitalization (matching of state funds
13 3/23/01

1,500,000

HUD? Infrastructure
14 5/22/01

900,000

City of Jackson water and sewer fund Infrastructure
15 1/12/02

74,000

($50,000 J. Paul Getty Trust; $12,500 Ms. Dept. Archives and History; $3,500 Gannett, Inc.; $8,000 ChemFirst, Inc.) Farish St./Scott-Ford Museum
16 3/8/11

210,000

Civil rights grant(?) Medgar Evers House Museum
  TOTAL

21,082,000

*(Community Development Block Grant – HUD)

Not included in this document are amounts for donations of real estate (e.g.: from state of Mississippi; donation of Alamo from Sunburst Bank), funding for the Smith-Robertson Museum and contract fees paid to Performa Entertainment and subsequent developers.

1) Hester, Lea Ann. “City expected to extend study of Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger 19 October 1981: 1B. Print.
2) Ibid.
3) Hester, Lea Ann. “Farish: Older than thought?” The Clarion-Ledger 23 July 1801: 1B. Print.
4) Scruggs, Afi-Odelia E. “Development plan fails to revitalize Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger 10 December 1989: 1A. Print.
5) Ibid.
6) Simmons, Grace. “Farish Street consultants to share info.” The Clarion-Ledger 9 October 1993: (no page cited)
7) Gates, Jimmie. “Renovation closer for Farish Street’s Alamo Theatre.” The Clarion-Ledger 22 November 1995: (no page cited)
8) Harris, Barbara. The Jackson Advocate. “Farish Street Historic District gets infusion of national, state funding.” 7 March 1996: 1A. Print.
9) Ibid.
10) Fleming, Eric. “Farish Street renovation under way.” The Mississippi Link. 26 March 1998. 1A: Print.
11) Henderson, Monique H. “Draft document targets Farish St. Historic District:12M allotted for development of district.” The Clarion-Ledger. 27 April 1999. 1B Print.
12) Ibid.
13) Mayer, Greg. “$1.5M grant going to Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger. 22 March 2001. 1B: Print.
14) Ibid.
15) _______. “Black museum receives grant.” The Picayune Item. 12 January 2000. (no page cited)
16) Mitchell, Jerry. “$2M-plus in grants awarded to state civil rights sites.” (“$210,000 will help stabilize the foundation and repair the Medgar Evers House Museum in Jackson.”) The Clarion-Ledger. 3 August 2011. (no page cited)

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