According to my buddy Ernest from Yazoo City who keeps up with such things, crypto-hominoid sightings are on the rise in Mississippi. Such creatures have been seen as far north as Winona and as far south as Mount Olive, where an adult male was viewed trying to make off with a dish antenna and a tackle box.
Most sightings are very late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, but Ernest claims he has a video of one raiding a Frito-Lay van in Greenwood in broad daylight. I haven’t seen it, but he says it looks like a bald orangutan in a Saints jersey tossing heavy confetti.
These beings deserve our respect and compassion; let’s not endanger them by alerting game wardens or any other law enforcement agents. We should encourage and support their presence in this world we share. I keep a six-pack of Bud Light on the back porch, but I won’t have them in the house.
If I speak of chicken and dumplings as a Southern dish, soon enough some foodways pundit—you can’t throw a rock without hitting one, and if you ask me, the bigger the rock the better—will declare it’s served as dim sum by expatriated Alabamans living in Hong Kong. Even on a national scale (not that nationalism exists, of course) it’s no longer safe for me to assume that pound cake is a New England recipe. A friend from Texas—east Texas, mind you—now living in Maine said that their neighbors considered pound cake Southern because it’s so simple and practical. Well, dear hearts, those are the very reasons Americans have baked this cake well before Burr shot Hamilton, so quit sequesterizing recipes that have been on the tables of our country even before it became a country. Read Beard. This recipe is a felony with fruit, a mortal sin with ice cream.
Preheat oven to 350 (a crucial step). Grease, line and set aside a 10-inch loaf pan or Bundt. Combine 2 cups sugar with a cup of softened butter and beat until creamy. Stir in two tablespoons of poppy seeds, a cup of buttermilk, 4 beaten eggs, and at least a tablespoon of vanilla extract. Gradually mix in 3 cups of plain flour sifted with a teaspoon each of baking powder and soda. Blend until smooth. Bake for an hour, then turn the oven off and leave the cake in until the oven has cooled. Rest on a rack an hour before slicing.
I do not hold with people who will not share recipes; that’s just mean. Most all of the good cooks I know are friendly and generous with their expertise. If you find yourself in the kitchen a lot, you should keep a cookbook of your own. Sooner or later, you’re bound to do something different and wonderful and you owe it to yourself to write it down and pass it on to others. Once you’ve got a dish down pat the way you want and like, it becomes your own exclusive property anyway. You’ll probably find that no one will be able to replicate the dish to yours or even their satisfaction. The secret to your dish might very well prove to be your cooking container (especially if it’s seasoned; woks are said to have their own signature) a particular cooking method you consider unimportant enough not to write down or even something as ineffable as your own special touch. At least give other people a base opportunity by listing your ingredients and procedures.
Include information aside from just the basics, too. For instance, mention if the dish was a favorite of a family member. If you serve it every year on a particular holiday, garnish your recipe with what other components were elemental, especially those involving heirlooms (your Uncle Earl’s china platter, or the centerpiece Millie made out of sewing scraps and pine cones), activities like having a breakfast on the morning presents were opened or memorable incidents (“Earl pulled a gun when Judy dropped that teacup . . . “). Such documentation not only enriches the book itself, but it also provides fodder for other stories, perhaps even novels or off-Broadway plays.
Let me also encourage you to write recipes by hand. While this exercise might serve as an irritating reminder of how bad your handwriting actually is, it gives the recipe verisimilitude. Handwritten pages also aspire to art when splattered with slopped liquids; it’s so Pollock. You just don’t get that with a laptop. Writing recipes by hand does require some precision, but don’t let getting caught up in the heat of the moment stop you. Later you can find another pen, more red wine or chocolate syrup, and amend the entry.
As to what recipes to include, for once in your life, don’t worry about diversity. Put your best foot forward. If your forte is cakes, casseroles or seafood, concentrate on those and don’t make any spurious attempt to fill in with recipes you simply copy from another place unless you actually try them out first. Bear in mind that this book should be as personal as you can make it, as reflective as possible of your personality and idiosyncrasies. By all means, include recipes from friends and relatives as well, since those enrich your work by leaps and bounds, but always identify your contributor and provide details of them as well as a genealogy of the recipe itself. For instance, an entry in my book reveals that a recipe for chicken soup with corn and rivels came from a lady from Lancaster, Pa. who was 6’2”, a psychologist with a unibrow who got the recipe from her Quaker grandmother, the wife of a Lithuanian stockbroker. Such seemingly irrelevant details make for richer reading than a dry recitation of ingredients.
This delightfully warm and rambunctious account of a political barbecue in Mississippi was submitted to the Federal Writer’s Project in the early 1940s. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that the excoriating political jargon may well have been patterned after one of T.G. Bilbo’s more vituperative speeches. Finding that the cook and I share a surname was a pleasant surprise, but entirely coincidental.
Just as sure as taxes come due before the year is out, politics comes of age in Mississippi ere fall settles down. Our crop has been made and, plow-weary as the soil itself, we take to politics like some folks take to drink. It’s the only sure-fire emotional outlet we know.
An office seeker with his nose to the wind senses that this is the time to ply his trade. Being one of us he knows that the voting fruit is now growing in bunches and ready for the plucking. ware, too, that the common run of old-time picnics is as dead as last year’s boll weevil, he gathers his, cohorts about the conference table, calls for a pooling of resources, and schemes up a barbecue. For, voting year or not, Mississippi politics takes on the nature of an epidemic and we rely on the mass eating of barbecued meat as a counter-irritant.
Even the novice candidates are invited to show what they can do, but the cook and the principal speaker should be old hands, famous for miles around, for we have a long way to come and the fare must be to our liking. Certainly, if the candidate for high office is one of our most famous and able villifiers, and if the pit artist is Bluebill Yancy, we’ll be there.
Bluebill is a black man with a head like a cypress knee. They call him blood brother to the Ugly Man, but if he’s short on looks, he’s long on cooking, and barbecue meat is his specialty. Bluebill and his henchmen are hard at work when we arrive on the grounds so we know that the weather, at least, is favoring the candidates. For Blue bill works according to the stages of the moon and has been known to call the whole thing off at the slightest show of thunder on cooking night. We pass the time of day with Dicey, Bluebill’s wife, who isn’t allowed within smelling distance of the pit until she sees Bluebill sharpen up his knives for the carving; the meat can’t “breathe freely” with a woman cook around.
We pay our respects to Uncle Si Curtis who has already nailed a plank between two trees for his lemonade stand. Uncle Si is one of the best singing school leaders in the county, and when he swings into “Mercy’s Free,” where it says “Swell, oh, swell, the heavenly chorus,” he can be heard as far away as the old burnt schoolhouse. Using the same technique to drum up trade for his spring-water lemonade, he leans against a tree and opens up:
“Ice cold lemonade! Made in the shade, Stirred with a spade, Good enough for any old maid!”
Uncle Si’s crowd thins out as the preliminary speaking begins. We listen to the soaring oratory with one ear and the sizzling of Bluebill’s meat The beef has been cooking all night over the embers of green hickory wood and its peppery odor has had our nose twitching since we first drove up. Bluebill’s pit is a ten-footer with wire mesh stretched over a fire coaxed down to smokeless coals. We pace the pit with him on one of his endless rounds — up one side to turn the meat, down the other to baste it with his mopping sauce. As the moist, brown hunks of beef approach perfection, Bluebill continues his rounds, proud as a monkey with a tin tail.
While the main speaker is warming up, we move from one group of friends to another. The sonorous voice damns the tariff and the Republican party. We nod our head. He touches on the sacredness of the ballot, the virtues of Southern womanhood, and we are in accord. He promised to fight, bleed and die to keep the ship of state a float and we say “amen.”
He pauses for dramatic effect, and after mopping his perspiring brow, starts in to rant, abuse, belittle and attack the opposition. We edge closer because this is what we came to hear. The speaker describes his opponent as a “shallow-brained, slack-jawed liar; a bull ape of Mississippi politics; a grave baboon cavorting like a fat pony in high oats.” We push a bit nearer the speaker’s stand, anxious to hear every word, hoping he’ll let the hide go with the horns and the tallow.
“Like a parasite of the highest rank,” the candidate roars, “he has been feeding from the public trough for twenty years, fattening the bosom of his trousers. It is time that the voters of this commonwealth rise up in indignation and turn him out to pasture and elevate to office men who won’t jump down their throats and gallop their insides out.”
Whether we agree with the speaker or not, we admit it’s pretty pert language, We figure maybe he is right, but for the moment the mention of feeding has suggested something and soon we take ourselves over to the pits to see how Bluebill is getting along with the beef, which has been roasting over the hickory fire for fourteen hours. Taking his cue from the orator, Bluebill dabs on more hot stuff, dressing it down with the same vigor the candidate uses on his opponent.
There is always an outsider who doesn’t know any better than to ask Blue bill for his mopping sauce recipe. His answer is as evasive as it is voluble. He recites it like a grocery list: vinegar, bay leaves, lemon, paprika, pickling spice, onions and garlic. To make it “good and delicious” Bluebill says go heavy on the garlic and paprika. If he is really annoyed by the questioning, he will recommend the generous use of a butter substitute as the base for his concoction. If only mildly so he will suggest cow butter. Catch him off guard when things are going well in the pits, and Bluebill will admit that he, himself, uses nothing but chicken fat.
Bluebill, having made what he calls his “politeness” turns to mopping his beef, and the bewildered recipe-seeker has to listen once more to the politician who, at this time, is working up to the climax punch. In a moment he will let us have it with both fists and leave us groggy and hanging on the ropes. Recoiling from the political punches, a neighbor asks us to have a drink of his best corn liquor, and we don’t care if we do. The candidates, wilted and weary from their efforts on the speakers’ stand, likewise have a good stiff one back in the bushes.
Meanwhile there is a mass movement toward the long table. Dicey paddles over from the edge of the clearing and gets there just as Bluebill draws a blade across the first outside piece. Some of our own women lay off cooing at the babies and line up behind the table to make the same woman-noise over the cakes and potato salad. For our part, we pass up all such trimmings. Armed with a slice of bread and a hand quicker than Bluebill’s knife, we aim for the outside piece, and make it.
The crowd gives way a little for the speakers to be served. After having bethumped each other with hard words, the candidates chat over their food as though it had miraculously brought them to terms. We ourselves share a dipper of spring water with a man we never liked and politics for the moment is forgotten. Even a Mississippi man just can’t keep on devouring barbecued beat and political speeches without gradually losing appetite. But we sorta have to stick around in the afternoon to hear our neighbors who are running for local office. We sit back to watch their antics and stay ready to have a good time if they work up a spat about something. Actually, what’s on our minds is the need for getting along home to see about the stock. It’s a far piece and we want to be there before first dark.
You met your last boyfriend at Waffle House.
You manscape with a hunting knife. You cheer for the NASCAR driver with the cutest jumpsuit.
You wish the Indigo Girls would “shut up and sing.” You keep a colorful stash of Speedos in your bass boat.
You go commando in your overalls. You always request “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” at the gay bars.
You attend Gay Rodeo events to find a personal trainer. Your pickup truck horn plays “I Love the Nightlife.”
You smoke Mistys because you like how the slim box fits into your Wranglers. You tailgate at Barbra Streisand concerts.
Your mullet has frosted tips. You root for the hillbillies in Deliverance.
You wish R.J. Reynolds would make Cosmo-flavored dip. The Gay River Expo disqualified you for using a trolling motor.
You think Kid Rock is sexy. You’re saving up to buy a Pensacola timeshare.
Your Pride float spends the rest of the year on cinder blocks in your front yard. You carry a camo-patterned man purse.
You were once thrown out of a leather bar for violating the dress code. Your Miata has Truck Nutz.
Your commitment ceremony was catered by KFC. Your personal scent is buck lure.
To confirm that the Charter of Christ embraces the cycle of life, the early Church adopted observances of the solar calendar from many different cultures. The most significant of these are obvious–Easter and Christmas–; All Saints’ Day marks the mid-point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, Lammas Day the mid-point between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox while May Day, which, like the summer solstice has no significant Christian observance, marks the middle of spring. February 2 falls between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, marking the middle of solar winter in the northern hemisphere, which Christians observe as Candlemas, celebrating the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, but most of us know it as Groundhog Day.
If like me you’re from the Deep South, groundhogs aren’t something you grew up with; there’s not even a gumbo recipe for them. They live as far south as Arkansas, most of Tennessee, north Alabama and Georgia as well, but almost nowhere in Mississippi except up around Southaven, where they’re more likely to end up barbecued than gumbo-ed. Groundhogs have a reputation of testing the weather on mid-winter day to see if they need to just barge on the couch and munch on cookies for a while longer or lose 10 pounds, buy a new bathing suit and clean out the pool. Groundhog Day is fun and quirky, but shadow or no, I’m not putting out any tomatoes until Good Friday.
My father Jess Jr. was one of the first politicians in north Mississippi who took an active and positive role in civil rights. As district attorney he refused County to sign a subpoena issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace” on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith at Ole Miss October 1962. He took everyone, irregardless of race or religion, into his care, and that memory still echoes among many across Mississippi.
He also loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.
Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something. Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Soon after that, Charley made headline by being the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.
Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley. It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.
Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans
8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained
Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.
In the mid-80s, I moved from north Mississippi, where I’d spent my entire life, to north Florida, where nobody spends an entire life. I caught total hell. I mean, I caught hell from people who didn’t even know where their grandparents were buried.
Part of the problem, of course, was the fact that I attached some degree of importance to such things as knowing where your grandparents—and ancestors beyond—had been laid to rest. I also suffered by being the only Rebel fan in a swamp full of Florida Gators. Believe it or not, most of these people didn’t even know what I meant when I said “Ole Miss.” Instead, they referred to it as “Mississippi.” That’s within bounds, of course, but it just doesn’t have the same cachet.
For another thing, I was a pacifist liberal in an area largely supported by military funding during the middle of the Reagan Era. My Dukakis campaign button brought down a rain of derision upon me, but I wore it defiantly. Finally, to add insult to injury, I’d only been there a little over a year when Alan Parker comes out with this damnatory film about one the darkest chapters of my home state’s history, Mississippi Burning. The impression these people got from the film was that everybody in Mississippi is an ignorant racist just itching to get their hands on some out-of-staters to help shore up our levees.
This conception was reinforced on at least one occasion that I can remember. At the restaurant I worked in, we offered a fish of the day. The offering varied, depending upon what the fleet from Destin brought in and what they charged for their catch. More often than not, however, the fish of the day was amberjack. Now, amberjack is a perfectly good fish, but large amberjack—those over 15 pounds or so—are heavily parasitized by a tapeworm, Poecilancistrium caryophyllum, more commonly known as spaghetti worms. The worms have bulbous heads and long, skinny bodies and they’re all coiled up in the flesh and you have to . . . well, I’ll leave it at that. It’s pretty disgusting. We were always careful to clean the fish fastidiously before we served it. But some people won’t eat amberjack—or speckled trout, which sometimes have the same problem—for that reason.
Well, I was working in the kitchen one morning with a waitress with whom I had what you could only call a difficult relationship. She was a world-class bitch, and I grew to love her dearly, but at this point I was still coming to appreciate her derisive wit. So when she stormed in, marched up to me and said, “Let me tell you what I think about you damned Mississippians!” I knew I was in for it through no fault of my own, so I just stood there while she let me have it. She had just waited on a table composed of a man from the Mississippi Coast and his wife. He asked her about the fish of the day, and when she told him it was amberjack, he said, “Amberjack! Why, only niggers eat amberjack!”
She was pissed, and rightly so. Oddly enough, though, this incident proved to be a turning point in our relationship, because I assured her that I was just as appalled as she was and dismayed to boot that she had to put up with such a display of rudeness and bigotry. I like to believe that despite my abundant flaws as a human being I was a good ambassador for my home state during my tenure on the Redneck Riviera. I made some good friends there, and though we’ve long since gone our separate ways, I still remember my time in Florida with varying degrees of fondness.
Just the other day, a neighbor told me that his night-blooming cereus—which of course was just weighed down with buds—was given to him by his grandmother, who had lived in Greenville, and she had gotten her “start” from Chestina Welty at a garden club gathering in Jackson. Since moving to Jackson twenty years ago, I’ve heard variations of this story ad nauseum every summer from every Tom, Dick and Harriet I run into. Most people will tell you that Eudora gave a cereus cutting to their mother/aunt/sister/nelly uncle, or will say they got it from someone else who did. Indeed, to admit—as I often do—that your “Queen of the Night” is of dubious lineage is to label oneself an unwashed member of the hoi polloi. You’ll find that the Welty night-blooming cereus mimics the properties of the True Cross, whose fragments once proliferated throughout Christendom in every church, chapel, and monastery. Of course, we can’t fault the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for peddling the Welty cereus rather much like the Borgia papacy did Holy Splinters; they have to get those leaks repaired in the Two Museums somehow. In the end, however, we really must admit that we can’t possibly be certain that any one cereus coming into bloom in Mississippi is really, honestly, a blue-blood Welty or just some pass-along white trash epiphyllum.