Rankin County Redux

During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became legendary as dazzling gathering places filled with music, dance, drink (and a few bullets, mind you), as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans. In Jackson, this glittering venue of vice and iniquity became known as the Gold Coast.

Also known as East Jackson, the Gold Coast was that area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Though it covered barely two square miles, it was nationally notorious. In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins, who declares, “There is no coast except the hog wallows of the river banks, but plenty of gold courses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”

Goins cites one Pat Hudson as the first to see the lucrative possibilities of booze and gambling near the junction of two federal highways (80 and 49) across the river from Jackson. Before then there was only a scattering of gas stations, hot dog stands and a few corn liquor peddlers. Then a certain Sean Seaney began selling branded liquor, and his place, called The Jeep, became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze. He was soon joined by others. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of order, but as soon as he cleaned out one place, another opened up. After he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.

This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. In December of 1936, Governor Hugh White ordered the National Guard into a business on the Pearl River where liquor was seized, but a Rankin County chancellor later ruled that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement. The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision and by that time the liquor was flowing again, but the governor, too, bided his time and did no more.

By the Forties, the Gold Coast had flowered into a vigorous black nightclub scene. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (one of the few hotels in the South that catered to Negros) with its famous “Off-Beat Room”, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others featured entertainment by national acts such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horn and Billy Holiday as well as local blues legends Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson. These establishments even ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate, including one that offered a “special bus” to the Gold Coast from Farish and Hamilton Streets.

By 1946, Rankin County was paying the highest black market tax in the state, but these golden years of the Gold Coast came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when club owner Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met each other at place called the Shady Rest only to gun each other down in a shootout. Their deaths spelled the end for the old Gold Coast. Others had been killed, of course (bodies had been being fished from the Pearl for many years already), but this double homicide involving a local constable so aroused public opinion that afterwards operations never dared be so blatant.

In the 50s, the area became dominated by a colorful bootlegger named G.W. “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought the Gold Coast as securely under his suzerainty as any corrupt satrap might. But his reign, indeed, the Gold Coast as an entity, ended in 1966, when Mississippi finally repealed Prohibition and liquor became available in stores all over Jackson. (Not, ironically, in Rankin County, which is still “dry” for liquor.)

Beale Street is a big draw now, and the French Quarter will (thank God) always be the French Quarter. But the Gold Coast is gone. Attempts have been made at some sort of commemorative festival, but the good citizens of Rankin County seem to prefer that this celebrated venue of vice and joie de vivre remains lost in a maze of time, asphalt and blue laws.

Mystic Mayonnaise

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

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.

More on that essay in a later post, but back to her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, which is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor in Jackson, she was unfamiliar with Welty’s work. 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.