Jesse L. Yancy, Jr. was an attorney, politician, and humanitarian who served the people of Bruce, Calhoun County and Mississippi from 1956 until his death in 1970.
Born in Springville, Mississippi in 1926, Yancy moved to Bruce ten years later, where his father, Jesse L. Yancy, Sr. established a general store. He graduated from Bruce High School in 1944, joined the Army Air Corps in 1945 and served overseas in the Pacific. He attended the University of Mississippi School of Business and School of Law, earning his J.D. in 1951. In 1952 he married Barbara Young. They had three children.
Yancy was first elected to office in 1960 as district attorney for the Third Circuit Court District. During the Meredith Crisis at the University of Mississippi, Yancy entered the national spotlight when a Lafayette County grand jury issued an indictment against Chief United States Marshall James P. McShane, Meredith’s escort to registration at the University, for inciting a riot. While serving as D.A., Yancy became president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Elected to the Senate in 1968, during his first term Yancy, as chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, guided the state’s first Open Election Law to passage. A member of the Senate Commission on Appropriations, he wrote and gained approval for the Idle Funds Bill, which authorized the investment of in place funding for the state, a key piece of legislation that has garnered Mississippi millions of much-needed dollars for over four decades.
Yancy served as an attorney for the City of Bruce for 17 years. His most influential act in that capacity came in 1961, when Bruce had outgrown its fledgling infrastructure and the city was badly in need of repairs and updates to its streets, water and sewer systems. Yancy commandeered a grant of $25,000 for the city to hire Cook Coggin, an engineering firm in Tupelo, to conduct a survey of what repairs and improvements were needed. On completion of this study, the city secured a loan of $500,000 to fund the improvements. Yancy helped Bruce to grow into a clean, attractive town, appealing both to current and potential citizens as well as businesses and industry. He was a president of the Bruce Rotary Club, the Bruce Chamber of Commerce, the Calhoun County Bar Association and a founder and commander of VFW Post 5571. He served on the Pushmataha Council of the Boy Scouts of America and taught Sunday school at the Bruce United Methodist Church.
For all his other accomplishments, Jesse Yancy, Jr. is best remembered simply as a man, a friend and neighbor willing to help others. His generosity is legendary, encompassing all in a vision of community, unity and compassion.
The Harrars’ Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) lyrically declares that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees.” When the nation began to recover from its bloody Civil War, and on into the early 20th century, timber became the South’s biggest cash commodity. Logging camps and sawmills sprang up like mangling mushrooms in the great forests stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to Galveston. The deforestation of the southeast was an ecological calamity of continental proportions, but it provided a defeated, dispirited people with the elements of existence and, perhaps, hope itself.
In my homeland of the middle South sawmill gravy is a staple for breakfast. This recipe makes a gracious plenty. Many folks I knew as a boy would keep a covered container of left-over gravy with whatever meats and biscuits weren’t eaten that morning. More often than not someone would spoon it over a piece of cornbread or a scoop of rice sometime during the day, and many nights found another batch being made on the stove.
North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy
This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly.
Brown about a half-pound pork sausage in a little oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like). Break it up very well. When quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour, and blend until smooth. When flour begins to brown, stir in about a cup of water. Mix well. To this add enough milk to make a thin gravy. Reduce heat and cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little lighter than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat. Salt if needed. I like it with a heft of black pepper.
The culinary history of Jackson, Mississippi is filled with colorful characters, including one who exemplifies the genteel aspects of the city in the early decades of this past century.
Winifred Green Cheney was born into a very old Jackson family; originally from Maryland, the Greens moved to Jackson in the early 19th century. Winifred was born in the second family home at 647 North State Street in 1913. She graduated magna cum laude from Millsaps with a bachelor of arts in Latin in 1933, and on October 25, 1934, after a 7-year engagement, she married Reynolds Cheney, who became one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. The couple had three children: Reverend Reynolds S. Cheney II, W. Garner Cheney and Mrs. Patrick (Winifred C.?) Barron.
While Winifred, in almost every respect, was a model for a well-to-do woman of social standing in the mid-century South (active in her church and in social charities, etc.), in another she was not: Winifred was a writer. In the course of her life, she wrote (about cooking, mainly) for such well-known publications as The National Observer, The Rotarian, Southern World and, of course, Southern Living. She published two cookbooks (both by Oxmoor House), Cooking for Company (1985), and the truly wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976).
Winifred’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a treasure-trove of splendid recipes, but as a whole is a tutorial of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied; the ingredients are often expensive, and the times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, one of the most frequent critiques of the book is how complicated, indeed “fussy” the recipes are, many often calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients.
Many of the recipes are heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as many from “my great-grandmother … from Lone Star Plantation in the Mississippi Delta, written in her fine Spencerian hand.” (“But there were no directions,” Winifred adds. “I found this to be true with most of the old ‘receipts’ in her walnut escritoire papeterie.”) She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors: Odel Herbert’s Carrot Casserole, Vivienne Wilson’s Asparagus and Carrot Escallop, Claudia Whitney’s Meat Spaghetti, Zollie Kimbrough’s Shrimp Casserole, Linda Lacefield’s Apricot Stuffing for Duck, Becky Voght’s Caramel Icing; and many, many more.
Winifred’s cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson as well as the Middle South, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”), and a preface by Eudora herself, “A Note on the Cook” in which she writes:
“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707. Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality.In good weather, but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.
When Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, attending Mr. Weston’s ball, is seated at the supper, she surveys the table with a cry, ‘How shall we ever recollect half these dishes?’ When I sit down to Sunday dinner at Winifred’s, I feel just like Miss Bates. What guest could not? But it now becomes possible for us to recollect the dishes we’ve dined on there. The cook herself has recollected the recipes for them in her own cookbook. It’s like another extension of Winifred Cheney’s gracious hospitality; she has added another leaf to her table.”
Sarepta was originally called Zarephath, meaning “a workshop for the refining and smelting of metals.” It was a small Phoenician town, near present-day Surafend (or Sarafend), about a mile from the Mediterranean coast, almost midway on the road between Tyre and Sidon. It is mentioned for the first time in the voyage of an Egyptian in the fourteenth century B.C. Sennacherib captured it in 701 B.C. (Schrader, “Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament”, 1883, pp. 200 and 288). Sarepta, despite its inconsiderance, has the high distinction of being named in both the Old Testament and the New. We learn from I Kings, 7:8-24, that it was subject to Sidon in the time of Achab and that the Prophet Elias, after having multiplied the meal and oil of a poor woman, raised her son from the dead. The charity of this widow was recalled by Christ (Luke 4:26). It was probably near this place that Christ cured the daughter of the Chanaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman whose faith He praised (Mark 7:24-30).
Sarepta is mentioned also by Josephus (“Ant. jud.”, VIII, xiii, 2); Pliny (Hist. natur., V, 17); the “Itinerarium Burdigalense; the “Onomasticon” of Eusebius and St. Jerome; by Theodosius and Pseudo-Antoninus who, in the sixth century calls it a small town, but very Christian (Geyer, “Intinera hierosolymitana”, Vienna, 1898, 18, 147, 150). It contained at that time a church dedicated to St. Elias. The “Notitia episcopatuum” of Antioch in the sixth century speaks of Sarepta as a suffragan see of Tyre (Echos d’Orient, X, 145); none of its bishops are known. Some Latin bishops, but merely titulars, are mentioned after 1346 (Eubel, “Hierarchia catholica medii aevi”, I, 457; II, 253; III, 310; “Revue benedictine”, XXI, 281, 345-53, 353-65; XXIV, 72). In 1185, the “Green Monk” Phocas (De locis sanctis, 7) found the town almost in its ancient condition; a century later, according to Burchard, it was in ruins and contained only seven or eight houses (Descriptio Terrae sanctae, II, 9). Sarepta was erected into a bishopric by the Crusaders, who raised a chapel over the reputed spot where Elijah restored the widow’s child. In the twelfth century it seems to have been a fortified city with a port and some stately buildings. Today, Sarepta is known as Khirbet Sarfend, between Tyre and Sidon, on the seashore; the ruins show that the town extended 1800 metres north and south, but that it was not very wide.
Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral) Leonard H. McCoy, M.D, chief medical officer aboard the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701), was born in Atlanta, Georgia, Earth, in 2227 to Mr. and Mrs. David McCoy. He enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 2245, and the University of Mississippi Medical School in 2249, graduating in 2253. McCoy’s graduation date from Ole Miss med school at Ole Miss was never confirmed in a Star Trek production, but Kirk’s statement in 2270 that McCoy had been a doctor for twenty-five years supports it.
In 2245, an interplanetary gymnastics competition was hosted by the University of Mississippi and held at the Menlo T. Hodgkiss Memorial Gymnasium on the Oxford campus, where he met the Tr’i’ll Emony Dax, who was visiting Earth to judge the competition. According to Dax, McCoy “had the hands of a surgeon”. While there isn’t a Hodgkiss Gym located at the present-day University of Mississippi campus, it is described in the series as “a relatively new” building. The University of Mississippi’s School of Medicine is currently located at the University Medical Center in Jackson. While in medical school, McCoy and his friends often substituted real drinking glasses with tricklers at parties. What fun.
McCoy met his future wife Pamela Branch at Ole Miss when she suffered brain-freeze from an ice cream cone. Branch wore white at the wedding ceremony and adopted the last name McCoy. She divorced him in 2255 because their professions kept them apart too often. In the divorce, she acquired their house on Mars, six cars and a valuable Vulcan painting.She also received custody of their daughter, Joanna. McCoy told Kirk that the divorce left him nothing but bones (thus his nickname). Shortly afterwards, McCoy enrolled in Starfleet Academy. The rest, as they say, is history.
When William Styron was a low-level, poorly-paid reader at McGraw-Hill in 1950, he rejected a book written by a Norwegian explorer who in 1947 set out in a hand-built raft on an 8000 mile voyage from Peru to French Polynesia to prove that primitive peoples could navigate great distances. 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 after World War II. 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 a Cajun, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who kicked off the mid-century tiki culinary craze. Raymond sailed the South Pacific, changed his name to Don Beach, and in 1934 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, and tiki got surf. During the 50s and well into the 60s tiki parties were a popular spin on patio barbecues. These events usually included tiki torches, flimsy furniture, neon paper leis and loathsome drinks with teeny-tiny umbrellas. The mai tai is the quintessential tiki cocktail, and the quintessential tiki appetizer is rumaki. Raymond is credited with its invention since 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. Rumaki are a cliché cocktail appetizer, inspiring parodist references in dozens of television serials and films.
Rumaki are easy to make, but instead of using raw ginger root or (worse) ginger powder, I urge you to use ginger oil for a marinade with the soy, which should be lite soy. To make ginger oil, grate about a half cup of raw ginger, place in a cup of vegetable oil, and heat until the ginger just begins to bubble. Heat for about five minutes, cool thoroughly, drain and save the oil and discard the ginger. Use the oil, mixed with soy 1:2 and brown sugar to taste for the marinade. Slice the livers, depending on size, into thirds; remember that the livers will have a tough connective membrane that must be removed. Slice small whole water chestnuts into halves add them to the marinade. Marinate both for at least an hour. Skewer livers and chestnuts in bacon sliced to size and place in a hot oven (425) until bacon has crisped.
In March, 2017, Joan Didion published the notes of her jaunt forty-eight years ago through Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in a slender book, South and West (Knopf). We’ll take a much more in-depth look at the book in a later entry, but first let’s focus on the passage in which Didion meets with the legendary “Voice of the Rebels” Stan Torgerson, in Torgerson’s home town of Meridian, Mississippi.
Bear in mind as you read that the month is June, the year is 1970. Nixon is in the White House for his first term. The nation as a whole is in a somewhat less turbulent mode after the riotous Sixties, but no section is more complacent than the South, where the key word had become progress. This passage is in essence an examination of the ongoing homogenization of the South as seem through the eyes of a transplant from the upper Midwest (Torgerson) and told to a visitor from California. At times Torgerson sounds like a one-man chamber of commerce espousing racial harmony, social equality and industrialization. When Stan says, “We’re not as inbred as we used to be” he’s referring not (necessarily) to genetics but instead to the influx of people and ideas from outside the South; when he says “we don’t wear crinolines any more” he’s telling Didion that Old South is gone. But though he says, “If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” as they drive through residential Meridian, the issues of race and poverty he discusses are those of the South.
This section from Didion’s work appears here in its entirety not only for the more compelling reason that it needs to be read in toto to grasp its exhaustive effect on Didion and to understand more fully Didion’s comments in context—particularly the last line—but also on a somewhat sentimental level because those many of you–as I do–remain familiar with Torgerson’s voice from his 17 years on air with Ole Miss sports might recollect his voice in the cadences of the quoted passages.
When I called Stan Torgerson for lunch at his radio station, WQIC, and asked him the best place to lunch, he said Weidmann’s, “but it wouldn’t win any Holiday Magazine awards.” In fact it had, and was not a bad restaurant, but everyone in Mississippi begins on the defensive. “I’ll be the biggest man in a green shirt to come through the door,” he advised me. He was, at lunch, wary at first. He said he didn’t think I knew what I was doing. I agreed. He refused drink, saying he wasn’t in New York City. Stan Torgerson came out of the cold North (Minnesota, I think) and headed to Memphis, where he went into broadcasting. He worked in Miami, and then, for a year, in San Diego, living in La Jolla. He felt ill at ease in La Jolla—his neighbors kept to themselves, had their own interests—and he wanted to get back south. His son had won a football scholarship to Ole Miss. He was worried about his children and drugs in California. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I just haven’t reached the point where I think pot is a way of life.”
When the black radio station in Meridian came up for sale he bought it. He also broadcasts the Ole Miss games, something he began doing when he was in Memphis. “That’s right,” he said, “I own the ethnic station, WQIC. In its thirteenth year of serving the black community here.” He programs gospel and soul, and reaches 180,000 in several Mississippi and Alabama counties, the thirty-second largest black market in the country, sixty miles in all directions and forty-three percent of that area is black. We serve a major black market, program soul music and gospel music, but what does that mean? A month ago in Billboard there was a survey pointing out that the Top 40-format stations are playing basically soul. Jackson 5 with ‘ABC.’ ‘Turn Back the Hands of Time,’ that’s Top 40 but it’s soul. Once in a while we throw in some blue-eyed soul, like Dusty Springfield with ’Son of a Preacher Man.’ We don’t play rock because our people don’t dig it. We don’t play your underground groups like the Jefferson Airplane . .. We have goodly reason to believe that ten to fifteen percent of our audience is white; some of the phone calls we get in the afternoon for dedications, they’re definitely white voices. We get thirty-six percent of the audience.”
He said I was probably wondering why he came back to Mississippi. “I came because I dearly love this state. I have a son—he’ll be a senior this fall—playing football at the University of Mississippi.”
He pointed out that Meridian was timber country, hill country. Pulpwood is the backbone of the agricultural product. He pointed out how progressive Meridian was: its three new hospitals. “In most southern cities there is a much stronger tendency to old-line money . . . Southern retailers stayed in business privately, home-owned, until very recently. In most cases the retailer has just begun to feel the competition from the chains. There’s the greatest business opportunity in the country right here in the South . . . We don’t have a McDonald’s in a city of almost fifty thousand people, don’t have any of these franchises here yet. You give one corner of one intersection in Jackson, Mississippi, or you give me the whole ball of wax right here in Meridian, I’d take the whole ball of wax and I’d put a McDonald’s on one corner, a Burger Chef on the other, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (sic! jly) ‘cross the street . . . “
His voice kept on, weaving ever higher flights of economic possibility. “There is and must be,” he said, a “continued turning to the South by industry. The climate is certainly one reason. Another is that the South wants industry and is willing to give a tax advantage to get it. Another, of course, is that there is a relatively low level of unionism in the South. Lockheed assembles tail sections here and ships them to California for assembly . . .
“Atlanta is the magic city for the young around here, across the whole social spectrum . . . The great migration out in the past ten years has been black, they get these glowing letters, and of course they’ve got relatively liberal welfare programs in some of the northern states . . . No doubt, too, there appears to be greater opportunity in the North.”
More on the progressive nature of Meridian: “Our radio station has probably got as fine a list of blue-chip clients as any in town, black or not. We’ve got all four banks, and anyone in retailing who’s interested in doing business with the black—the black’s dollar is very important. The minimum wage was probably the most important thing to happen along these lines, and then food stamps were a good dead, I would say they added millions of dollars to the economy.”
“We are in a transitional phase. There’s a tremendous push to education on the part of young blacks. The schools here are completely integrated. Of course, neither you not I can change the older black, the forty-year old, his life patterns are settled.”
“Ole Miss has its standards to keep up. As more and more blacks get an educational advantage, you’ll see blacks at Ole Miss. There’s a feeling among some black leaders that because these kids have not had advantages they should get some kind of educational break, but basically what has to happen is the standards have to stay up and the people come up to meet them.”
We were driving through town at night, and Stan Torgerson interrupted himself to point out the post office. “There’s the post office, the courthouse where the famous Philadelphia trials were held, the trials for the so-called Philadelphia deaths.”
“If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” Stan observed as we drove through the residential district. He pointed out his $29,500 house, a two-story frame, “twenty-eight hundred square feet, with magnolia, dogwood and pecan trees.” He pointed out Poplar Drive the “Park Avenue of Meridian, Mississippi, all the houses built by the old-line families.”
Fervently, he kept reverting to the wholesomeness of life in Meridian. His daughter, who would be a high school senior in the fall, had “her sports, her outdoor activities, her swimming. It’s a quiet, pacific type of living, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come back down here. The kids are taught to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ I know it’s very fashionable to poke fun at the South, but I’ll pit our slum area any day against the slum areas where the Cubans and Puerto Ricans live in Miami, Florida, and Miami’ll lose.”
Meridian is the largest city between Jackson and Birmingham, and there is a naval base there which means a great deal to the community. At apartment buildings largely inhabited by the navy there are cars with plates from all over the country.
Some random social observations from Stan Torgerson included: most of the local children go to college within the state, at Ole Miss or Mississippi (sic jly): the other country club, built with federal money, has a membership which includes “assistant managers of stores and some navy people’: most of the subdivisions in Meridian feature “custom houses.” Torgerson paused dramatically, to emphasize the versatility of the new blood in town: “A fabric store.”
I asked if some of the children did not leave, and he allowed that some did. “Nothing here for the kid with an engineering degree. And of course the girls go where they marry. Southern girls are notoriously husband hunting, but I guess that’s the same anywhere.” It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
Torgerson was would up now, and I could not stop his peroration. “There’s been a great metamorphosis in recent years in the South, the Volkswagen dealership for example comparable in size to anything you’ll find anywhere.”
“The KKK which used to be a major factor in this community isn’t a factor anymore, both the membership and the influence have diminished, and I cannot think of any place where the black is denied entrance, with the possible exception of private clubs. We don’t have any antagonistic-type black leaders working against racial harmony. Since the advent of black pride, black power, there is a little tendency to be self-segregating. On our station, we have a program we call Adventures in Black History to point out the contributions black people have made—a black minister does it. I have blacks working in the WAIC Soul Shop, and there’s a black druggist here, a man eminently qualified, who is a local boy who went north and came back, received his training at the University of Illinois. We have a certain degree of black business, including this gas station here, which is owned by a black. The key is racial harmony, and education, and we’ll try to provide our people with both, ‘cause we’re gonna live together a long time. Every major retailer hires black clerks, Sears has a couple of black department heads, there’s a black business college here, and a black and white Careen Training Institute.
“Of course we have transplants, too, new ideas, like any other hybrid we’re generally stronger. We’re not nearly as inbred as we used to be. We’ve been withdrawn in this part of the South for many, many years, but we’ve become more aggressive, and as people come in they’ve helped us become more aggressive—we don’t wear crinolines anymore, no we don’t.”
“And about our politics, well, George Wallace got a lot of votes in Indiana, let’s face it. I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ‘cause I’m not. But things are changing. I had a man the other day, owns an appliance store, he never believed you could send a black repairman into somebody’s house. Now he can’t find a white … He asks me if I know a black man who makes a good appearance. That’s progress . . .”
Of course, there’s a tremendous lack of skilled blacks, and the problem is training and education. It’s no longer a matter of lack of opportunity, it’s a matter of lack of skills. We’re still two generations from full equality, but so are they in Chicago, in Detroit, and have you ever been in Harlem?”
Glazed by the two hours in which this man in the green shirt had laid Meridian out before us as an entrepreneur’s dream, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (!) on every corner and progress everywhere, even at the country club, I dropped him off and drove through the still-deserted streets of the downtown. A few black women were on the streets and they carried umbrellas against the sun. It was almost five o’clock. In the middle of 22nd Avenue, the main street of Meridian, there was a man holding a shotgun. He had on a pink shirt and a golfing cap, and in one ear there was a hearing aid. He raised the shotgun and shot toward the roof of a building several times.
I stopped the car and watched him a while, then approached him. “What are you shooting at?” I asked.
“Pi-eagins,” he said cheerfully.
In this one demented afternoon Mississippi lost much of its power to astonish me.
Originally published in 2009, this article remains one of the few substantial accounts of our Greek neighbors, who both as individuals and as a community have vastly enriched this city.
With the fascinating exception of Tarpon Springs, Florida, where an old country industry found new life, most Greek immigrants settled in the northeast. But according to Ellen Hontzas, most of the immediate ancestors of Jackson’s families were from the South.
“One person would come over and then they would bring relatives and friends. In different areas, you will find concentrations of people from different areas of Greece. Here, you’ll find many from the island of Patmos as well as from the Peloponnesus. But they may have stayed in, say, New Orleans for a year or two and then drifted up and around. A lot of people came from Houston, Tallahassee and Birmingham. We didn’t have any Yankee Greeks.”
“I was born here, but my daddy Anthony Tattis was from Mobile,” Ellen says. “He was in the Air Force, stationed here, and I was born at the air base (now Hawkins Field). I lived in what was called the ‘GI village’, on Avalon, but most of the other Greeks lived in west and south Jackson. Just about everything we did centered on the church.”
Indeed, the Greek Orthodox Church makes up the heart of the community. Dr. Virginia Cora, a member for over forty years, says, “The church and its calendar provide structure for the changing of seasons; these traditions may be less strictly observed now, but still are important.”
The Rev. Fr. Christopher Harner, presiding priest at Holy Trinity & St. John the Theologian at 1417 West Capitol Street, says, “It’s intriguing to note that this parish, the reason it is double-named is because the members of the original founding group were never able to agree on one common name. Normally, if a parish is double-named, it is because there was a split in the community that was healed and both sides came together. This parish is somewhat unique in that it started with groups of people who were not able to agree on a particular name.”
“This parish has challenges that aren’t present in most Greek Orthodox parishes,” Father Christopher says. “In New England, where you have up to 15 parishes in the Boston suburbs alone, some with 2000 families that live within 15 minutes of the church, when they hear what this parish is like, you can imagine how different it must be from what they expect.”
“I grew up in New York with a father from Greece and an American mother,” says Laura (Stamatakis) Orr. “I got the best of both worlds. They raised me in a large Greek community, but when I was young my family moved to California to an even bigger Greek community. I even had my own big fat Greek wedding in a Greek Orthodox cathedral in Los Angeles.”
“My husband and I decided to move here to Mississippi, where he is from, about 2 years ago, Laura says. “It was a very difficult choice, leaving my parents, my friends and my church, but we now enjoy a special yet different experience, a small community that welcomed us with open arms, one that was built by the first families that arrived in this part of the South.”
“The family includes nuclear and extended family both here and in the old country, as well as church family,” Virginia Cora says. “Any occasion calls for a gathering, especially birth days or name days, Easter and Epiphany.”
Virginia says that she, her friends and family savor life in the moment. “We do love to eat, dance, and celebrate the occasion, any occasion. Feast days usually have favored foods associated with them, certain breads like tsoureki for Easter and Christopomo for Christmas, vasilopita for New Year, and pitas or cookies for other holidays.” Virginia says that meals including appetizers, entrées, and desserts are consumed casually over several hours. The music tends to be traditional folk music with dancing and sing-a-longs like syrtaki, hassapiko and tsimako. Drink includes beers and wines consumed with meals and in moderation, especially retsina (resinated white wine), kokkineli, Metaxa and ouzo.
An argument might be made that the Greeks in Jackson have made their most significant impact in the restaurant business. “In the early 60s before the franchises moved in, the Greeks pretty had control of the restaurants; you had Primos, the Elite, the Mayflower, the Rotisserie, Dennery’s. Now we also have Nick’s, and his father, Mr. Apostle, had Paul’s Lamplighter and Paul’s Northside, and my husband’s daddy had Johnny’s Restaurant down on Highway 80. That’s what they knew; they knew how to cook, but the crazy thing is that they didn’t have Greek menus, they didn’t sell Greek food, they adapted to what they could sell.”
Kanellos Katsaboulas, proprietor of Kat’s Wine Cellar, says, “My father did own a restaurant, Christos’ Deli, but that was more of a side hobby that he had. His primary business was Katsaboulas Tile and Marble, which was in operation for over 35 years.”
“It’s a real close community. My brother (Tasho) and I both grew up in the Greek church, went to Greek school. My father was Greek, my mother was from Mississippi, and we grew up with both influences. Having my Geek grandmother living with us was wonderful. She barely spoke English, but she cooked for us every night and involved us in the culture. We called her ‘Yama’. She came from the Peloponnese, and she and her husband moved here in the 30s. My father, Carnellas Katsaboulas, was born here, but his two brothers were born in Greece.”
“All these Greek families that I grew up knowing were very close; I called everybody ‘uncle’. That was the biggest difference between me and the other kids I grew up with. My wife is from here, but I don’t see that element in her family; she has her family, and everybody else is friend or acquaintance, but in the Greek community, you grew up not really distinguishing between who is a blood relative and who isn’t. There was really no difference in the level of respect we held for them.”
“The Jackson community is characterized by devotion to family, culture and church,” Virginia says. “The members are concerned about the welfare of their family and the success of their work. Our people are passionate about their politics, participate in elections and work with community leaders.”
In north Mississippi, where the Father of Waters skirts the southwestern vestiges of the Appalachians, the land undulates mile upon mile between river bottoms and wooded ridges. Here the sun is strong, and by the time December comes around a weary green still lingers along the roads. Rain arrives after warm days, ushering in longer spells of drier, colder weather. If snow falls, rarely more than enough to cover the ground, it’s made into muddy, leaf-littered balls and stacked in the yard or gleaned cleanly and mixed with sugar, vanilla and cream.
Though winter still comes the same way, much seems to have changed there since I was a child and still looking forward to my birthday on the 12th. While not rich by any means, most of my family was well off when few were, but Jess Jr. made no bones about being a child of the Depression. Those older remembered other hardships at a more distant time, and the young, as all young at all times, had little yet to remember. In our home, Thanksgiving amounted to a modest overture to Christmas; just after the turkey was eaten, Barbara filled the house with glowing towers of glazed glass jars, papier-mâché crèche figurines and ornaments light as air hung with shining ribbons.
Her trees took days to decorate, one a loblolly pine draped in angel hair studded by tiny blue lights and hung with glittering glass ornaments. In the den, smilax, holly and magnolia draped the mantle; bowls of walnuts, almonds and pecans, oranges, tangerines and hard candy topped the tables and on the hearth stood a bucket of dried pine cones to start an open fire where we made popcorn in a long-handled shaker. Barbara provided a groaning board. What she didn’t cook herself, she shared food friends and relatives brought for her table: ambrosia from Aunt Gay, bread-and-butter pickles from Ruby Zane, tea cakes from Aunt Leila, peanut brittle from Betty Edwards, pecan divinity from Ora Crocker, a coconut cake from Zara Arrington. A splendid cook, Barbara spent days on the Christmas feast, making pans of chicken and dressing, baking a turkey, a ham and yeast rolls, candying sweet potatoes and stuffing dozens of eggs. The bounty of our home was there for all who called, and none left hungry.
Above anyone I’ve ever known my father Jess loved Christmas, threw himself completely and unreservedly into the essence of the season and drew everyone he knew along in his wide wake. He was the Spirit of Christmas Present, bigger than life, colorful and jovial, generous and gregarious. For him, Christmas was to be celebrated with everyone, not just family and friends, but with his world.
By the first week of the month, Jess had set his plans in motion, beginning with a party at the community building at the city park on the south side of town where local bands provided music for dancing (an activity widely frowned-upon at the time) and the local blue laws banning liquor were casually set aside while he pumped his friends for contributions to fund his Christmas expedition. After the party, he would make a trip to Tupelo, to the Lady Lee outlet store, where he would buy boxes of firecrackers and bottle rockets, huge sacks of Tootsie Rolls, cinnamon candies, peppermint sticks and butterscotch rounds; then to Cockrell Banana Company where he’d buy crates of oranges and tangerines. These he brought home where they were put in a spare bedroom, and in the days before Christmas my brother Tom, sister Cindy and I along with a cadre of neighborhood children would sort them out and stuff them into small paper sacks, staple the tops together and pile them into boxes. On Christmas Eve, we’d pile into a car, at best a station wagon commandeered from a neighbor, at worst a ’65 Mustang convertible, and we’d head to the black neighborhoods.
Jess wore a Santa suit, and Barbara would dress us children as elves. He once drafted his brother-in-law Jim to play Santa while he sauntered alongside laughing and greeting. When we rolled across the railroad tracks, we collected a troop of children flanking our route, shouting and jumping, reaching out to catch the sacks of candy and fireworks. Jess would make sure that those children who were too shy to come to the car received their share, and he would often walk into homes where he knew of special need bearing a ham or an envelope with money.
Jess was in his glory then, doing what he felt was the most important thing he did all year. His career in public service gave him an opportunity to help many people, but seeing the eyes of these children for whom his visit was the only Christmas many if not most of them would have gave him a sense of wholeness that few men are afforded. His largess, his sense of noblesse oblige, was untainted by any shadow of arrogance. He remembered the deprivations of his own childhood, and sought to relieve those of others.
Now I am an old man, far from home and missing my people who have passed on before me. I spend my holidays simply and in little company, but the living memories of my childhood are with me, my heart is warm, and I know no want. My father’s gifts live on.
In his lyrical work on the Mississippi Delta, The Yazoo River, scholar-politician Frank Smith says of sharecroppers that “Spending habits throughout the fall inevitably reduced all but the most prudent tenants to a penniless state by Christmas,
… and no money for Christmas finery and festivity plus peppermint sticks and oranges for the children, could wreck the morale of any tenant. Oranges were a standard Christmas delicacy for the poorest of family. Santa Claus tried to get one in each child’s stocking. If the mother was a good cook, she ordered the peeling saved for flavoring a Christmas cake or pie.”
Well after Reconstruction, my father, a child of the Depression, made sure of having plenty of oranges for Christmas. In his time oranges had become symbolic of the Christmas season in the way fruitcakes were for others, and we kept wide shallow bowls filled with oranges and nuts in the living and dining rooms throughout the holidays. Daddy gave sacks of Valencias to nearby families during the holiday season. Our mother would have us children pierce oranges all around with toothpicks and insert cloves in the holes. We would hang these on the tree and mantle and their sweet, spicy scent would fill the room.
The sacks of Florida oranges he bought bore the name Indian River, a designated area on the east coast where the oldest orange groves grew. The Spaniards planted oranges St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, and the fruit was planted widely along the Gulf (viz.: Orange, Texas; Orange Beach, Alabama), but none survived the Great Freeze of 1895, which sent freezing temperatures down to the Keys.
According to Felder Rushing, “Cold-tender citrus plants were grafted onto the strong, disease-resistant rootstock of trifoliate orange. When freezing weather killed the grafts, the trifoliate stock grew into a pretty little thorny shrub with sweet flowers and sour, golf ball-size fruits. A lot of the trifoliate rootstock survived along the Gulf Coast, but most of those acres have been reclaimed for other crops. The big citrus crop is the relatively cold-hardy satsuma.”
A mature satsuma tree can survive down to −9 °C (15 °F) or even −11 °C (12 °F) for a few hours. Of the edible citrus varieties, only the kumquat is more cold-hardy. Satsumas rarely have any thorns; the fruit is exceedingly sweet, easy to peel, and many cultivars are seedless. The Louisiana crop ripens from October until late November. The name “satsuma” is credited to the wife of a U.S. Minister to Japan, General Van Valkenburg, who sent trees home in 1878 from Satsuma, the name of a former province, now Kagoshima Prefecture, on the southern tip of Kyushu Island.
Its fruit is “one of the sweetest citrus varieties, with a meltingly tender texture” and usually seedless. The satsuma also has particularly delicate flesh, which cannot withstand the effects of careless handling, which means you’ll usually only find satsumas in local grocers or roadside produce stands. Satsumas are used very much as oranges in desserts, even entrees and salads, but if you’re feeling really froggy, here’s a particularly ambitious recipe from Louisiana Cookin’.
Satsuma Upside-Down Cake
3¾ cups sugar, divided
4 cups water
24 (¼-inch-thick) slices of satsuma*
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon satsuma zest*
½ cup fresh satsuma juice*
Preheat oven to 350°. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper, and spray with baking spray with flour. Sprinkle ¼ cup sugar in bottom of pan. In a large skillet, stir together 1½ cups sugar and 4 cups water. Add satsuma slices, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove satsuma slices with a slotted spoon, and place on a wire rack to let drain, reserving satsuma syrup. Let slices stand for 30 minutes. Place slices in prepared pan, overlapping slightly. In a large bowl, beat butter and remaining 2 cups sugar with a mixer at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together milk, zest, and satsuma juice. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with milk mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Gently spoon batter over satsuma slices, smoothing top with an offset spatula. Bake for 30 minutes. Cover with foil, and bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes more. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Loosen edges with a knife, and remove pan. Invert cake onto a serving plate, and remove parchment paper. Drizzle with ¼ cup satsuma syrup.