Putting on the Dog

I’m not about to tell you how to cook a hot dog, and I’m not going to tell you what kind of bun to stick it in, either; those are purely personal considerations. You heat up a wiener any way you find best, and stick it into whatever bun you like.

As to toppings, mustard is the premiere condiment when it comes to sausages of any ilk. Eschew French mustards; while France has been an ally since the dawn of our nation, putting Dijon mustard on a hot dog seems vaguely unpatriotic and approaches the epitome of pretension. Creole mustard is a laudable and appropriate compromise. Ketchup is acceptable in some circles (yes, mine) but if you slather mayonnaise on a weenie, you need therapy.

A relish is wonderful, and your favorite chili should always be an option. Chopped fresh onion is a must; use a white with bite instead of a sweet yellow or red. For cheese use mild cheddar. It’s a hot dog.

And a hot dog deserves a warm bun; just sayin’.

 

Valley of Dry Bones: A Meditation on Change by Howard Bahr

In 1951, author S. Skip Farrington, Jr., bestirred himself to see how America’s railroads were faring in the years following World War Two. What he found was a thriving industry open to innovation and dedicated to customer service. In his classic Railroading the Modern Way (Coward-McCann, 1951), Farrington extolled the virtues of the great companies whose heralds, maps, lists of officers, and intricate schedules fattened The Official Guide to the Railways, that indispensable yearly publication, the size of a Chicago phone book, that every ticket clerk and agent in the Republic consulted for the routing of freight and passengers. Farrington raised hymns to powerful diesel locomotives, all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), cushion couplings, centralized traffic control, end-to-end radio communication, and luxurious new passenger equipment. Reading Farrington’s work now, one is struck by his implicit conclusion: everything about the railroad was going to stay the same, but it would all be faster, safer, and shinier than ever before. The traveling public could rejoice, and small shippers could rub their hands in glee.

Two decades later, Farrington’s cheery prophecy had collapsed like a washed-out trestle. Those of us who were railroading in those twilight days witnessed changes in the industry far more radical than anything Farrington could have imagined in the money-green glow of the ‘Fifties. From our decrepit yard offices, grimy locomotive cabs, and generic all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), we watched as the old resounding road names celebrated in Farrington’s book were gobbled up by mergers. We saw the sale or abandonment of entire districts, the consolidation of agencies, the ruthless encroachment of job-killing technology, and the surgical excision of labor-intensive commodities like perishable fruit and passengers. The government got involved, then it got uninvolved, and then–well, who knows? Traffic agents like my old man– those stalwart, hard-drinking, fiercely loyal drummers who pounded the pavements in search of business–became as anachronistic as link-and-pin couplers and finally disappeared altogether, their once-busy offices abandoned or used for storage.

Railroads, it seemed, had found other interests. Our beloved Illinois Central, for example–once the Main Line of Mid-America–yearned for greater profits, so it redefined itself as Illinois Central Industries and wrapped its tentacles around Pepsi Cola and Whitman Candies and left the now-unprofitable railroad property to wither on the vine. By the mid-Seventies, the Official Guide had shrunk to the size of an L.L. Bean catalog. On our Gulfport District, the maximum main line speed of freight trains had been reduced to ten miles an hour over crumbling lightweight 1930s rail affixed to ties that could be pulled apart in the hand. Three-man crews, with radios that rarely worked, risked their lives trying to switch behemoth tank cars and piggyback flats in yards designed in the 1890s. Almost overnight, the old craft became unrecognizable to persons like myself, who remembered footboards and forty-foot cars and coal-oil switch targets, who had penciled switch lists in the rain, who had passed lantern- and hand signals along a cut of cars and waved at pretty girls from the cupola of a caboose or the cab window of a growling GP-9.

But surely some revelation was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The new railroad model, slouching toward solvency with relentless efficiency, was a desperate attempt to survive in a world that had swiftly left Farrington’s ideal behind.

In due season–another ten years perhaps–the railroads accomplished their vision and their survival. The result, as John R. Stilgoe so beautifully illustrates in Train Time (U of Virginia P, 2007), was a tectonic shift in the American industrial landscape. Stilgoe’s book, in perfect counterpoint to Farrington’s, demonstrates how, in less than a half-century, the old clanking, colorful, individualistic railroad companies of folklore and romance vanished like a dream, and in their place rose a new paradigm: the single trunk line, a silvery welded-rail turnpike over which computer-controlled trains with two-man crews hauled inter-modals or bulk commodities. Yard switching became a matter of mere pulling and shoving, and along the main line, switching was minimal or nonexistent. Depots were sold for restaurants or gift shops, freight houses were demolished, and only the most reluctant accommodation was made for Amtrak passenger trains.

Out of the chaos, finally, rose a single indisputable Gibraltar of fact: for the Post-Modern age, no better method exists for the transportation of bulk commodities than a well-maintained, high-speed, computer-controlled, heavy-rail corridor over which fuel-efficient motive power hauls the goods. American mega-railroads have achieved their goal, and American mega-business–not to mention highways and Interstates choked with eighteen-wheelers–will be the better for it.

Like most revolutions, however, that which I have just described was not without its cost. A way of life disappeared, and with it the loyalty men and women felt for the companies that had sustained them, often for generations. Countless jobs were abolished as shops and yards “modernized,” trains were cut off, and maintenance and damage control were hired out to private companies. Small shippers found they were no longer courted; indeed, they were ignored, even bypassed, as the railroad companies pulled up branch lines and spur tracks. Train crews no longer learned on the job, but attended centralized schools like truck drivers or heavy-equipment operators. People, especially poor ones, who still found it expedient to travel by rail were shuffled off to poor old Amtrak, for years the red-headed stepchild of the new empire.

Today, railroads have all but disappeared from the American imagination, where they once held center stage. Through four years of Naval service, I was sustained by the idea that, when I was released at last, I could go and be a railroad brakeman–somewhere, anywhere. I would walk the tops gaily and ride the caboose; I might even get to wear the uniform of a passenger trainman. I could do it for as long as I wanted, for the railroads, of course, would never change, a prodigious delusion as it turned out. In latter years, I have met not a single young person whose ambition was to work for the railroad.

When the family SUV is inconveniently blocked at a grade crossing–OMG! Josh will be late for soccer practice!–or when a derailed ninety-foot tank car of ammonia exterminates a congregation, then the citizens pay attention, a little. Otherwise, most people are only dimly aware of the big, graffiti-plastered objects that lumber past on the edge of their vision. In an age when, for example, the Canadian National operates in Mississippi and Louisiana, the public can hardly be blamed for losing their sense of regional affiliation. Crewpersons, buttoned up tight in their air-conditioned locomotive cabs, do not wave much anymore, and the caboose, the public’s most cherished railroad icon, has long been replaced by FRED, the Federal Rear End Device. FRED is an air-pressure gauge with a blinking red light fixed to the last knuckle of the last car. FRED does not wave, he cares nothing for pretty girls, and trains pass like sentences without punctuation, gliding on their way toward destinations no one can name.

With the exception of amateur rail enthusiasts, most people born after 1970–even most contemporary railroad persons, I expect–have little sense or patience for what the old craft meant, or how important it was in the daily life of generations. My students do not know what a caboose is. They have never heard of the Panama Limited or the Pan American. They think The City of New Orleans is a corny old song their grandparents listened to. This is our collective consciousness now. It is where we need to be if we are to have a viable rail system in the context of the Twenty-First Century. A hard truth, perhaps, but, as old Major R.K. Cross used to say, the truth is a stubborn thing.

And yet. And yet. Some ghosts are hard to shrive from blood memory, and not for nothing do people have a sense of something lost, though they may no longer be able to articulate just what the loss involves. When a person, by chance meeting, discovers that I was once a railroad man, he or she will more often than not voice a familiar lament. “Isn’t it a shame,” the person will say, “that we let our railroads go.” Then, inevitably, he will press on to sing of the supposed glories of European systems, or how, as a child, he rode to grandma’s house on the beautiful Sunset Limited and drank from Waterford crystal in the dining car as the scenery reeled past like illustrations on an SP calendar. I never know how to answer the complaint, nor how to respond to the memoir, so I nod my head and remain silent, wondering if the person understands what he is saying. He is unaware, I think, that the guilty collective pronoun included the railroads themselves. He forgets, perhaps, that the complexities of modern life offer no alternative. He forgets, most of all, that one can no longer expect Waterford crystal in a culture that has agreed unanimously on the Styrofoam cup.

Nostalgia has little virtue save for them who have earned it. In the end, Nostalgia, and its consort Romance, are an insult to the old ones who spent half their lives in cheap hotels; who saw their comrades cut in half or mangled under the wheels; who felt the loneliness and isolation of flagging behind in a ghostly fog; who understood that a steam engine, for all the mournful poignancy of its whistle, was a hard taskmaster and a deadly one. Nostalgia and Romance conceal, and therefore dishonor, the fact that old-time railroading was a real bitch, a dangerous and lonely and demanding craft, and those who followed it, especially in train or engine service, dwelt always on the edge of catastrophe. To paraphrase my old friend Frank Smith, a switch engine foreman of thirty years service, if you got home after the job without having killed someone or turned something over, your day was a success.

And yet, for those of us who lived the old craft, no coldly efficient, high-speed computer game can replace it. Perhaps too much happened for too many years out there in the night when the old trains ran. There was too much death, too much honor and meanness, too much tragedy and glory and fun, and too many souls were moved by the distant cry of a locomotive–steam whistle or diesel horn, no matter–for it all to be erased by corporate ukase. Something of the old life remains, something deeply human and therefore messy and dramatic, to haunt the memory of the Race.

Once, Frank Smith and I were talking to a gentleman who had worked his whole life on the now-vanished Columbus and Greenville Railroad. Beside him sat his wife, a gentle, silver-haired lady whose eyes glowed with the knowledge that she and this old rascal had been married sixty-one years and had made it work. The old man patted her knee. “Ever’ time I’d leave on the job,” he said, “my wife would make me a bucket of fried chicken. I used to throw the bones right out the cab window, a lot of bones all down the main line, years and years.” He thought a moment, then smiled. “Lord,” he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if them bones was to rise again.”

Funny, indeed, and an irresistible image: hundreds of white leghorns rising from the dust, gazing about, puzzling how in the world they ever got there, all wandering forlorn along the weed-choked iron of the old C&G. Meanwhile, all across the Republic, outside the trembling windowpanes of restored depots and freight house museums, the big anonymous trains roll on, the cone of their headlights pointed toward tomorrow.

A Mississippi Flag Primer

Most state flags were adopted between 1893 and World War I. Texas is an exception, her flag a holdover from the Republic of Texas (1836-46), but the Lone Star was itself adopted from an earlier flag, the Bonnie Blue flag of the Republic of West Florida. After a failed rebellion against Spain in 1802, American settlers in the coastal South revolted successfully in 1810. The Republic of West Florida was organized, a constitution adopted, officials were elected and application was made to President Madison for admission to the Union. Madison declared the republic a part of the Louisiana Purchase and ordered Louisiana Governor Claiborne to take possession. The Republic of West Florida’s flag had a blue background bearing a single white star that in time became known as the Bonnie Blue Flag. This flag flew over Baton Rouge, Pass Christian and Pascagoula for a short time and reappeared as the Lone Star in the flag of Texas.

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, the Bonnie Blue was widely recognized as the unofficial flag of the Confederacy; it was raised over Ft. Sumter as well as the capitol building in Jackson. On January 26, Mississippi officially adopted a state flag which included a canton with the Bonnie Blue star and a magnolia tree in a white center field with a red border. This flag, usually depicted without the red border but with a red bar on the right, is now widely known as the Magnolia Flag. The Bonnie Blue remains an icon of the Confederacy, an image that while lesser-known in our day was just as emblematic as the battle flag to contemporaries. Take note that Scarlett and Rhett had their daughter baptized as “Eugenia Victoria Butler”, but she was called “Bonnie Blue”.

In November 1861 the Confederacy adopted an official flag, the “Stars and Bars”, a flag so closely resembling the Union flag that in the Battle of Manassas in July, 1861, Confederate forces fired on their own troops. General Beauregard, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, decided that a change must be made and in cooperation with General Johnston and Quartermaster General Cabell, they issued a flag designed by William Porcher Miles, a broad blue saltire on a red field, bordered with white and emblazoned with thirteen five-pointed stars. This design became known as the battle flag, and was later incorporated in flags adopted by the Confederacy in 1863 and 1865. The Magnolia Flag remained in use as the state flag of Mississippi until 1894, when a new one with the Confederate battle flag in the canton and a field of blue, white and red bars was adopted by the Mississippi Legislature. The only change since then has been the addition of a white border separating the canton from the blue and red bars; the original specifications were vague, and the flag was made in versions with and without the border until Governor Fordice issued an executive order requiring its use in 1995.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled that state legislation in 1906 had repealed the adoption of the flag in 1894, so what was considered to be the official flag was only so through “custom and usage”. Governor Musgrove appointed an independent commission that developed a design replacing the Confederate battle flag with a blue canton containing 20 stars representing Mississippi’s status as the 20th state admitted to the Union. The proposed flag, with the exception of a single undistinguished star in the inner circle of six signifying the state’s membership in the Confederacy among five other sovereign nations (the others representing France, the Republic of Mississippi, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States), had no outstanding symbolic reference to the Confederate States of America. On April 17, 2001, a non-binding state referendum to change the flag was put before Mississippi voters. The new design was defeated in a vote of 64% (488,630 votes) to 36% (267,812).

Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee

It was the third of June, another hot and dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was bailin’ hay.

So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about Billy Joe McAllister’s suicide in the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.

Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.

Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.

“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”

Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”

Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.

Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.

The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”

The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.

Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.

For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”

Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”

Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.

Bobbie Lee has become as much a mystery as Billy Joe.

 

Jackson’s Hellmouth

Jackson, Mississippi shares the problems of many municipalities: urban decay, a shrinking tax base, rampant crime and a citizenry plagued with indifference. Other cities can usually trace these difficulties to such mundane matters as confused politicians, inept and municipal bureaucracies or social strife, and while Jacksonians deal with in these issues, some blame a deeper element: a volcano.

An extinct volcano squats some three thousand feet beneath Mississippi’s capital city. If it ever blows (a purportedly remote likelihood since it hasn’t been active since T. rex ruled the earth) the Mississippi Coliseum would be ground zero. The volcano’s dense core is a prominent structural abnormality in gravitational and magnetic surveys. Bernadette Cahill, in her book Over the Volcano: An Inquiry into the Occult History of Jackson, Mississippi (Aardvark Global Publishing: 2010) maintains that the volcano’s dense core affects not only physical aspects of the locale such as gravity and magnetism, but it also generates a negative well of psychic energy that continually saps the city – its spirit of place as well as the spirits of its citizens – of positive and essential life forces. She also hints at even more malevolent aspects, tagging the volcano as a portal for evil from another plane.

When I’m beset with muddy bathwater, exploding sewers, or dim-witted politicians, instead of trying to call anyone and griping about it, I just blame it on the volcano. It’ll saves me a lot of frustration.

 

The World from Gillespie Place: Edwardian Jackson

I am not from Jackson, nor (even worse) am I from Belhaven. This relegates me to troglodyte status to the natives to this fair city, but before you begin casting aspersions (or something sharper and heavier) let me assure you that Seta Sancton’s The World from Gillespie Place goes a very long way towards explaining why I and others love it so.

Given my primeval ignorance, of course I had to find out who Mrs. Sancton was, and given that I know so few people here, I decided to simply do what I do best and research the matter. This eventually led me to contact Tom Sancton, who among other things is former Paris bureau chief for TIME magazine, professor of journalism at the American University of Paris, Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane and a jazz clarinetist to boot. He’s also likely to be one of those irritating people who complete the NYTimes crossword even before they finish their second cup of coffee. In response to my query, Mr. Sancton wrote:

Dear Jesse,

Seta Alexander Sancton (1915-2007) was my mother. She was born in Jackson, on North State Street, into a prominent local family (Whartons on mother’s side, Alexanders on father’s side). Her father was Julian P. Alexander, a graduate of Princeton and Ole Miss law school, and an associate justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. She graduated from Millsaps College, where she was a member of Chi Omega. She was a close personal friend of Eudora Welty, a neighbor from childhood. (My mother’s family lived first on Gillespie Place, then at 1616 Poplar Blvd; Eudora was on Pinehurst.) Seta married my father, New Orleans journalist and novelist Thomas Sancton, in 1941. They lived mostly in New Orleans and had three children of which I am the youngest. When my mother was in her 70s, she decided to write down some family stories and memories for her children and grandchildren. She started jotting down stories on notepaper, the back of envelopes, whatever she had at hand, adding stick figure illustrations as she went along. The result was the book you have in hand. In the 1990s she recorded readings of some of the stories.
Best regards,

Tom Sancton

Seta’s book is the memoir of city full of “sugar and spice and everything nice”, of June bugs and fig trees, lavender lantana and magnolia musk, braided biscuits, sidewalk parades, and ragtime on the Victrolas. “Though Edward VII was no longer on the throne,” Seta writes, “the temper of the times remained Edwardian for our mothers, our grandmothers and for us children.”

The World from Gillespie is a world where maids took children to Smith Park to play on the swings and slides, feed the swan, and eat sugar cookies in the miniature Greek pagoda. Home libraries offered volumes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson and the best-selling works of Zane Gray. Gillespie Place itself was a new subdivision off State Street, and having a mother who was Episcopal and a father who was a Presbyterian was awkward. Going to the state fair was a landmark event as was going downtown to eat at the Bon Ton, the Pantaze, or the Edwards House. Seta’s eyes are filled with the genteel character of Jackson during the 1920s. Yes, of course poverty and oppression were rife at the time, but those and other unpleasantries such as war and epidemics are set aside for bridge luncheons, birthday parties, dragonflies, and swimming in Livingston Lake.

I’m charmed by this picture of Jackson’s past, watch for glimpses of it now, and see it every day. Memory, my children, is a living thing.

 

 

Bahr on the M&SV

Among the most distinguished and elegant writers in the Mississippi canon, Howard Bahr writes compelling novels of the American Civil War. Bahr is the winner of the 2007 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction for his book The Judas Field. His novel The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War received the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction in 1998, and in 2011 Bahr was the winner of the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts. Between 1968 and 1973, Bahr worked in various positions for the Illinois Central Railroad, theAlabama, Tennessee, and Northern Railway, Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Southern Railway, and the CB&Q Railroad. A friend and neighbor, he kindly consented to interpret this old schedule for the Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad.

The Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad was constructed between May 1925, and September 1926. The M&SV came off the Illinois Central main line at Bryant, just south of Coffeeville. The road was twenty-one miles long running slightly northeast; at its terminus, the town of Bruce, Mississippi, was built around the E. L. Bruce Co. lumber mill. Original motive power was one Prairie Class (2-6-2) steam engine. Sometime before 1952, the road obtained at least three seventy-ton GE diesel switch engines. The M&SV also operated a motor rail car (named “Bruce”) for express and passenger service. The car was a coach body set on a Reo truck chassis.

The M&SV timetable is from the August, 1952, edition of The Official Guide of the Railways. Among the common symbols on railroad time tables are found the following:

§ indicates a train that runs only on Sunday
† indicates a train that runs daily except Sunday
∫ when placed beside a station name, indicates a “Flag Stop” (i.e., passenger trains only stop at those stations upon a displayed signal)
■ meaning can vary; on the M&SV timetable, indicates motor rail car service.

Times in the A.M. are printed in light-faced type; times in the P.M. are printed in bold type. The time given for each station is the scheduled time that the train leaves the station. Southbound and westbound trains are given odd numbers. Read down. Northbound and eastbound trains are given even numbers. Read up. On this table, mileage between stations is not given. Mileage from Bruce Junction is indicated in column Mls.

On the M&SV timetable, the motor coaches have regularly scheduled runs. The absence of numbered freight trains indicates that freight trains run “Extra”; i.e., they can be listed at any time. This timetable is for the convenience of passengers and does not show sidings where trains may pass. Most likely, the motor coaches had rights over freight trains. In any event, the M&SV is so short, and traffic so light, that train control was probably informal. By 1952, the Illinois Central ran no passenger trains from Jackson, Tennessee, to Grenada, Mississippi. Thus, one wonders why passengers would want to go from Bruce to Bruce Junction.

Mrs. Horrell’s Paperwhites

North Street is broad and level, making for an easy, leisurely walk. Along the street are a couple of old apartment buildings and old homes that are now businesses. Farther south, one finds uninspired, banal state office buildings, terminating in the triple atrocity of the MDAH compound. Bill Harvey says the avenue was once lined with homes whose splendor was second only to those along North State Street. Today, the only private residence on the street belongs to the Horrells. The house was built in 1920; now a “For Sale” sign is planted before the front door.

For the many years I have walked from my home on Poplar down North Street to the Welty Library, Mrs. Horrell’s narcissus have been a delight to me. The narcissus are the earliest in the city to bloom, coaxed out of the ground by the weak sun of mid-winter. Most people refer to these flowers as paperwhites, though ‘Paperwhite’ is actually the name of a variety of Narcissus tazetta Mrs. Horrell has, along with ‘Grand Monarque’ and the fragrant double ‘Erlicheer.’ She also has several types of large yellow narcissus many know as daffodils, a few clumps of blue-and-violet bearded irises, and gnarled, ancient rosemarys. Mrs. Horrell told me the narcissus lining her front walk came from her grandmother, who received hers from a friend or relative decades before.

The area has been zoned commercial, so once the property is sold, the house will be razed, and the in-place plantings will be lost. Developers’ architects view landscaping as ancillary or incidental, and plantings in-place are expendable. The new developments on Manship obliterated a dozen or more varieties of iris, narcissus, azaleas, and old pass-along ornamentals. The landscaping of the new dining venues is attractive in a bland, generic way, but historic plantings help define the character of a neighborhood and deserve to be left in place and cherished.

You can still find old plantings struggling beneath mats of Asian jasmine throughout the city. Two Novembers ago, we freed an old street corner of choking vines, weeds, and rotting wood, built up beds and loosened the dirt. In March, along the edges of our work, the old double daffodil, ‘Butter and Eggs,’ an authentic Southern heirloom and folk favorite, came barreling out of the Yazoo clay, and they’re blooming again today. Our earth remembers what we forget.

Our Appalachian Table

Travis Milton, a native of Russell County, Virginia, high in the Alleghenys, became a chef on the East Coast, but his thoughts kept returning to his childhood home. “The more I learned about the restaurant business, the more I appreciated the food culture I’d grown up in,” he says. “I started dreaming of a restaurant that would capture and celebrate that lifestyle, allow me to explore where it came from.”

Milton is profiled in a recent Gastro Obscura article, “The Chef Restoring Appalachia’s World-Class. No matter your definition of “world-class” the term seems incongruous to most when applied to Appalachia, a region of grinding poverty and hard-scrabble existence, so it’s not surprising that his idea was ill-received by his fellow chefs. “When I’d say ‘Appalachian Cuisine,’ they’d hit me with a shit-eating sneer,” says Milton. In 2010, at a New York restaurant, Milton was part of a group planning dishes that would “tell about who we are.” He wondered aloud about sourcing leather britches and greasy-backs, a type of beans common in mountain gardens.

The following afternoon, the head chef slapped a copy of Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking onto Milton’s station. “He got in my face,” says Milton, “and started barking, ‘If this is what you wanna do in my kitchen then you can get the fuck out!’” Having White Trash Cooking slammed in his face was a turning point. To overcome the stereotypes, Milton realized, he’d need to be able to tell the story of Appalachian food, but writing on the region’s cuisine was mostly focused on single mothers dressing up SPAM in a sugary sauce and other relatively recent ways that Appalachian cooks respond to the poverty that is, for most, coal’s legacy in Appalachia.

Then in 2016, Ronni Lundy published Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Her work won the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year and Best Book, American Cooking awards. In Victuals, Lundy claims that European settlers adopted native Cherokee foods almost wholesale. Wild game, wild herbs and greens, nuts, and berries augmented produce from small gardens of beans, corn, and squash using the “Three Sisters” method.

Appalachians let animals range freely, keeping prized breeds adapted to the landscape. Settlers raised pigs on acorns, berries, and chestnuts, which produced the famous hams of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. After the Civil War decimated the region, residents of isolated Appalachia embraced their gardening traditions, developing thousands of hybridized varieties of apples and pears, squash, tomatoes, collard greens, and other foodstuffs.

While Victuals establishes a benchmark, the font and source for Appalachian food writing is The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery: Regional Memorabilia and Recipes. First published in 1984, Appalachian Cookery has little resemblance to any other publication involving Southern foods. The Foxfire Project was the brain-child of Eliot Wigginton, a man from West Virginia who received an advanced education in the north and began teaching at a rural school in northeastern Georgia during the late 1960s. Called “foxfire” after a will-o’-the-wisp in mountain woods, his students collected folklore and customs in a series of oral histories that were first published in a 1972 anthology. Many more editions have followed as well as other volumes documenting Appalachian culture.

According to the text, some of the research and the photographic essays included in Appalachian Cookery were gathered for previous Foxfire books but were not selected for inclusion into an earlier volume. Appalachian Cookery stands out as the most complete and comprehensive record we have of the food, cooking and home life of southern Appalachia in early to mid-20th century. Most of the recipes are very simple; pound cake has four ingredients in equal measure. The book is also a primer on how to use homegrown or wild-gathered foods. Appalachian Cookery opens a door to a world far away from arugula and alien to star anise, a world where cooking was simple but not coarse, having a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the lessons of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons. For those of us from the upland South, these are our roots.

CRY-BABY COOKIES

Cream 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening with an equal amount of sugar. Add one cup molasses and two beaten eggs. Sift together 4 ¾ cups plain flour with 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 ½ teaspoons soda. Then combine with 2 cups grated coconut, 2 cups chopped walnuts and 1 ½ cups raisins. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1 cup milk to creamed egg mixture. Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for 10 minutes. YIELD: approx. 7 dozen cookies.

A Note of Thanks

Dear Cecile,

Few things in life are more enjoyable than a walk in Greenwood Cemetery. There I remove myself from the hurly-burly noise of the city, imagine myself in Arcadia and feel close to a that peace of mind everyone speaks of so highly. For all that, the walks are more delightful in your company, when I can drink deeply of your wisdom and smile at your gently biting wit

I can’t remember how we first met, but it might well have been in Greenwood, which has been my refuge for nigh on fifteen years, years, though it may well have been at The Oaks, which I’ve been walking past on my way to the Welty Library for just as long. However we met, I’m grateful we did. Knowing you reminds me that agents are in place to ensure that in time all will be well. What others do in the name of saving history is most often cosmetic and self-serving. You’ll not see such people clearing a grave of choking weeds or freeing a beautiful camelia from the smothering caresses of some upstart vine.

But I’ve seen you do it. I’ve also listened as you speak of plans to keep Greenwood and The Oaks peaceful and beautiful. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart you for all the work you do. I know I’m not the only one who appreciates it. The entire state of Mississippi owes you a bow of gratitude. You should know that.

While I’m at it, thanks for the rain lilies. I’ll plant them safe from marauding landscapers, where they will drink in the thunder and raise their pretty faces to the morning sun.

Love,

Jesse Lee