Winners from Vardaman

Vardaman, Mississippi is in southeast Calhoun County, near the source of the Yalobusha River, the largest tributary of the Yazoo. Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a lumber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the Continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great wine barrels for the 1925 Paris Exposition. When the great forests of the southeast were depleted, Vardaman, like so many towns in the rolling hills, needed a sustainable crop. Farmers turned to the sweet potato and their efforts found success. Vardaman, Mississippi IS the Sweet Potato Capital of the World; all others claimants are pretenders.

Vardaman holds an annual Sweet Potato Festival in October—this year the 46th—that includes music, arts and crafts, exhibitions, cook-offs and lots and lots of food. Sweet Potato Kings and Queens are selected in no less than four events with contestants from infancy to high school. Many people consider the recipe contest the main event, and people go all out for the coveted prizes, including the Mayor’s Cup, which this year was won by Lyndsey Wade for her Scrumptious Sweet Potato Coconut Bars. I’m also giving you the winner in the cake category, Melissa Edmondson’s spectacular Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting. Either or both of these desserts would be a splendid addition to your holiday table.

Scrumptious Sweet Potato Coconut Bars
Lyndsey Wade

¾ Cup Butter, melted
1 ½ Cups Graham Cracker Crumbs
1 (14 oz.) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
3 Cups Sweet Potato puree
2 Cups White Chocolate Morsels
11/3 Cups Flaked Coconut
1 Cup Chopped Nuts

Heat oven to 350 degrees and coat 9×13 baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter. Press into bottom of prepared pan. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over crumb mixture. Scoop sweet potato from the peeling and mix until smooth. Using a piping bag (or plastic freezer bag with hole cut in one corner), layer the graham cracker crust with sweet potatoes. Layer white chocolate chips, coconut and nuts. Press firmly.Bake 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool and cut into bars. Store covered at room temperature.

Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
Melissa Edmondson

1 ½ Cups butter, softened
2cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large eggs, separated
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups finely grated sweet potato
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 3 (8in) cake pans with nonstick baking spray with flour. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla at medium speed with a mixer until fluffy.  Add egg yolks, beating until combined. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Gradually add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites at high speed with a mixture until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into batter. Gently stir in sweet potatoes and walnuts. Spoon batter into prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 23 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, cool completely on wire racks. Spread White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting evenly between layers and on top and sides of cake.

White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting

1 (4oz) white chocolate baking bar, chopped
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup butter, softened
16 oz. cream cheese softened
2lbs. powdered sugar

In a small sauce pan, combine chopped white chocolate and cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth.  Remove from heat, and cool for 1 hour. In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with a mixer until creamy. Add white chocolate mixture, beating until combined. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until smooth. Note: Cake layers can be made up to 1 month ahead; wrap cooled layers tightly in plastic wrap and Freeze. To serve, spread frosting on frozen cake layers (frozen layers are easier to frost), and thaw. Store thawed cake, covered, in refrigerator up to 3 days.

Melissa’s cake

 

Oyster Dressing

The Gulf oyster has had a disastrous decade. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010 killed up to 6 billion of the adult population. More recently the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway on the Mississippi River decimated the saltwater ecosystem of the Mississippi Sound, including what are still among the largest remaining oyster reefs in the world. Recovery is underway. A $5 million oyster restoration plan is in the works; the oysters will be seeded this winter in over 200 square miles of artificial reefs to grow undisturbed until 2021. And oyster farming shows huge promise

While the oyster numbers are way down, if you see a generic oyster in a supermarket or a raw bar, it’s probably still a Gulf oyster, which is a strain of Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, found on the Atlantic coast. Gulf oysters tend to be large, tender, and well-suited to cooking. Rockefeller sauce overwhelms a delicate Olympia, but the meaty Gulf oyster holds its own even in dressing.

Oyster dressing is a favorite of New Englanders that dates back to the 18th century when oysters were abundant along the eastern coast of North America. Oysters had been used in the British Isles with or without bread crumbs for stuffing for over 335 years. In Britain, oysters were added to stuffing that was more traditionally used in fowl, fish, calves head, leg of mutton, hares, and pigs, and this tradition was brought over with British colonists. Oysters were once so cheap and plentiful that many early American cooks stuffed their turkeys and chicken with oysters. As the oysters declined along the Eastern seaboard, so did oyster dressing, and now the dish is most often encountered along the Gulf.

As I’ve said elsewhere (I’m sure) dressings tend to have more wheat bread the closer you get to the Gulf Coast, and oyster dressing is no exception; most Louisiana recipes call for a stale French loaf of some kind. However, inland recipes and older recipes most often call for cornbread. While the one I’m giving you here is mine, it’s typical of the upland South in that cornbread is used and green pepper is not.

Oyster Dressing

Lightly butter a large baking pan and preheat oven to 350. Sauté two cups diced white onion and two cups diced celery in a half stick butter on low heat until tender. Cook a pint of oysters with liquid in a half stick butter until oysters are just done, the edges beginning to curl. You can add a bunch of chopped green onions to this if you like. Remove from heat, add a tablespoon dried thyme, a tablespoon dried basil and a tablespoon ground sage. Combine three cups crumbled dry cornbread and three cups crumbled dry bread crumbs in a large bowl. Add vegetables and butter along with three eggs well-beaten. Mix well, adding enough congealed chicken broth (if needed) to make a thick slurry. It should be quite moist. Add to pan and bake until golden brown and center is set, about forty-five minutes to an hour.

My Neighbor Wil

Wil and his wife Bev live around the corner from me in an sedate residential neighborhood in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. More than anyone I’ve ever known, Wil embodies the American Dream of work rewarded and a life well-lived. Here is his story for the world; it matters, yes it does.

Wil as a toddler in Jackson, MS

I was born September 26, 1939, in a shotgun house on Farish Street in the heart of the black community. The neighborhood had four barbers, three restaurants, and two fast food restaurants for hamburgers, pig ears, smoked sausage, and sandwiches. We had our own grocery store, a cleaner, a shoe repair shop, a laundry, an ice cream parlor, and movie houses on Farish and Amite. We also had two funeral parlors, a bike shop, and a bus company that brought people from the country to sell their produce. Three doors from my house was a pool hall and a cab stand, and all my friends lived within a few blocks.

My aunt always told me I should try to make some money on my own, so I got a job at a beauty parlor on Capitol Street. It was owned by a guy named Baldwin, one of the biggest jerks who ever lived. He said he’d give me six dollars a week to shine shoes, but I couldn’t take tips. I was supposed to make six dollars a week, but he would give me five one week and four the next.

It went on like that for a while until I finally got tired of it and told my aunt. She said, “We’re going to go down and get your money.” She put her pistol in her purse, and we went to the beauty parlor. “Mr. Baldwin,” said my aunt, “you owe this boy six dollars, and you need to pay him.” Baldwin said, “Well, I’m not going to give him anything. He’s fired.” My aunt reached into her purse and pulled out her pistol, walked around the chair where he was standing and said, “You need to pay him his money.” And he did.

Our house at 518 Farish backed up on an alley across from Rodger’s Tailor Shop. Up the alley lived a lady bootlegger named Cara Lee, whose daughter was a whore. All kinds of trouble went on up there on Friday and Saturday nights, and, because my bed was under a window, I heard things I hoped I’d never hear again. Sometimes the police raided Cara Lee’s place, and one night a policeman shot our little cocker spaniel just because he was barking. At that, my aunt came out of the house with a Winchester rifle and told the policeman she might blow his brains out. A long, tense moment passed, and I was sure someone was going to get shot, but finally another officer came over and said, “Please ma’am, Lord to God, he was wrong to shoot your dog, and I’m sorry.” The policeman apologized, and my aunt huffed back into the house.

After all that, my aunt decided it was time for me to get back with my mother.  She said, “Son, you know I love you more than life, but if you stay here, either I’m going to be killed or you are. I think it’s time for you to go be with your parents.” Correspondence went back and forth, and in the summer of 1954, I left Jackson and went to Madison, Wisconsin, where my mother and stepfather rented a house in South Madison. The neighborhood was called “The Bush” and was made up entirely of blacks and Italians. I was surprised because every one got along fine.

My new school was Edgewood Sacred Heart Academy, where I was the sixth black among five hundred students. I didn’t do well in school; it was hard for me to concentrate because of the trouble I had at home. My stepfather was an alcoholic, and he couldn’t stand to see my mother and I growing close.

In 1958, I graduated from Edgewood with a C-minus average. Luckily, I was a good athlete and got an offer from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. I played ball for them over a few semesters, when, out of the blue, my real father sent me a train ticket to come out to Los Angeles. I liked being with my father and planned to go to L.A. City College in the fall, but my grandmother died, and my mother insisted I come back to Farish Street for the funeral. My father begged me not to go, but I had to. I never saw my father again.

By 1961, I was living in Madison again. One snowy day, I was walking down Park Boulevard when two of my buddies and a woman drove by in a Volkswagen bug. I asked, “Where are you going?” They said, “We’re going to New York City.” I said, “Hold on, drive by the house, let me pick up some stuff!” That’s how I got to New York.

I’ll never forget standing on 6th Avenue thinking, “I’m in New York! I’m in the Village!” I moved into a little flea-bag hotel on 43rd Street and found a part-time job right around the corner. Everything was fine until I started going out with a woman who worked in the same place. It wasn’t long before our relationship got to a point where I felt trapped. I wanted to be free, but didn’t know what to do.

One morning, I was looking at the travel section of The New York Times when something caught my eye: a Yugoslavian freighter was due to sail out of Brooklyn for Tangier and Morocco, and you could get passage for $141. As soon as I saw that notice, I remembered the night back in L.A. when my father shook me awake. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Dorothy’s in the kitchen.” I said, “So what?” He said, “She’s boiling water to make tea, and she don’t drink tea. Get dressed–we’re going to your sister’s.”

That was it. If you want to get free, all you have to do is leave. A few days later, I was on that Yugoslavian freighter bound for the Straits of Gibraltar.

The voyage lasted nine days. I had my own room, the food was excellent, and I got so drunk off slivovitz, I’ll never drink another drop of it.  In Tangier, I rented a room for seventy-five cents a day in a hotel near the Casbah. A few days later, I went to an American bar and was introduced to Mark Gilbey, who owned Gilbey’s Gin. We talked and had some drinks, and after a while, he invited me to a Christmas party. He had a fabulous place overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with a red room, a blue room, and so on.

I stayed in Morocco nine months, in Tangier, Affairs, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Showan. When I finally decided to leave, I crossed the Mediterranean to Spain. I loved the Spanish people, but when I got into France, I ran into problems. I didn’t speak French, and the natives were nasty about it. From Nice, I took a train into Rome. I was sitting on the Spanish Steps when a guy came up to me and said, “My name is Wilpert Bradley, I’m from Chicago, and I’m gay.” I shook his hand and said, “My name is Wil Cunningham, I’m from New York, and I’m straight.” He laughed and said, “Wil, you’re the first American I’ve met who didn’t take offense at that.” I said, “I’m travelling and living my life. Ain’t no problem.”

Bradley had come over with the “Cleopatra” film company. He had a big place over on Via Seccalle and let me a room in the back. That’s where I stayed for a year and a half.

A publicity photo of Wil in Italy

I did a little modeling, and I was in some spaghetti Westerns, made up as a Mexican bandito. I got fifty dollars a day to stand around and wait for them to shoot me and fall off the horse. It was fun–fifty dollars a day for doing nothing. When I’d made a little money, I’d go up in the Scandinavian countries. I just travelled, met people, travelling was cheap, I could get on the train and be in Paris in just a few hours. But Rome was my home. I could go away for four or five days and come back, and I had a place to stay.

Some friends were showing my Portfolio around to movie companies in Rome when my mother called with bad news. My step father was in the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver, and the doctors feared he would not make it. I thought it was time I should go home for a while–I could get back to Europe after the crisis was over. As it turned out, it would be years before I returned.

When I got back to New York, I stayed with a friend from UW and waited for instructions from mama. The friend was from New Rochelle, New York; that week-end, there was a party up there, and he asked me if I would like to go. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me, for it was at that party I met my wife-to-be. We had a great time together, and we fell in love.

Her father gave us good advice: “Get out of the city,” he told us. “Get out of New York. You’ll never make it there.” My stepfather was in a Madison hospital, and my mother was having a hard time. I talked it over with Beverly, and she said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go to Wisconsin.”

I fought my demons and finally reconciled with my stepfather. As for Bev, my mother thought of her as a daughter until the day mama died. Eventually, Bev and I found jobs, and in no time, we had our own place. That September, we went back to New York and got married.

I attended community college to see if I could get my grade average high enough that a university would accept me. Meanwhile, I got a job at a clothing store called “No Hassle.” The guy liked me a lot because I was very fashion-oriented, I had just come back from Rome, and I knew a lot about clothes and shoes. What I really wanted, though, was to open my own business.

After a year at the community college, I qualified to enroll at the University of Wisconsin, but the desire to open my own business was too strong, and I only stayed one semester. I reached out to a friend of mine, Lamont Jones from Mobile, Alabama, who had just gotten his MBA, and we wrote up a business plan for a woman’s shoe store.  He would handle the money, and I would be the buyer, something my time at “No Hassle” had prepared me for.

The problem was, Lamont and I had just two thousand dollars apiece and little credit. The Small Business Administration loaned us nine thousand, and in 1969, we finally opened our shoe store–“Compared To What”–on State Street in Madison, about three blocks from the university campus. Then we had another problem: we simply couldn’t get a credit line with any of the suppliers. When they sent us the shoes, we had to send them the money. We were selling shoes like mad, but we didn’t have a cash flow.

After five years, Lamont and I realized we had a losing proposition. We just couldn’t get ahead, and we still owed Small Business nine thousand dollars. We went down there to pay them off, and the guy said, “We can’t take cash.” I said, “You’re going to take cash today, and I want a receipt.” I counted out nine one-hundred-dollar bills, then Lamont and I split up the remainder: two thousand dollars each, same as we started with.

I decided I’d have to set aside my father-in-law’s advice and return to New York. I had contacts among shoe buyers and suppliers, and through them, I met the general manager of Thayer-McNeil, a division of Florsheim Shoes, in Manhattan. He made me manager of a store at 73rd Street and 3rd Avenue. I had been at Thayer-McNeil/Florsheim a year when a guy told me about a job with Converse. At that time, Converse had an office on the eighty-first floor of the Empire State Building. As soon as I walked in the door, the general manager said, “You’re hired. I like the way you walked in.” (I always dressed well as a salesman.) When the paperwork was finished, I was told my territory would be Brooklyn, a part of New York I knew nothing about.

They gave me a company car with a trunk-load of samples. Next day, the valet parked it in the garage while I went up to the eighty-first floor to check with the general manager. When I got to the car again, I drove across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue to my accounts. My first stop was a store that sold Converse; I went in and gave the manager my card. Luckily, business was slow, and the manager was glad to have someone to talk to. I went out to the car to get my samples from the trunk . . . and they were gone! I drove straight back to Manhattan, had the valet park my car, went up eighty-one stories, and said to the general manager, “Irving! I went to a store on Flatbush Avenue, went in to see the manager, came out to get my samples–and they were gone!” Irving closed his eyes for a moment, then said, “Earlier this morning, you parked in the garage downstairs, right?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Next time, when you give the valet your keys, take the trunk key off the ring.” That was my first lesson on the new job.

Irving Cole taught me a lot when I was at Converse. My first time out with him, for example, he taught me to listen. We went into a store in Brooklyn, and before I could unpack my bags, the store manager started complaining about how hard it was to work with our company. He went on for a long time, using language that made me uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Irving never said a word, just let the guy vent. Finally, when the manager calmed down a little, Irving said “Let me apologize for the problem you have getting this shoe in your store.” Then he took out a notepad and asked what colors and sizes the guy needed, and how soon he would need them. When he had the information, he went to the store phone, called our customer service, and arranged for everything to be shipped next day.

After we left the store, Irving asked, “What were you thinking in there?” I told him the guy scared me, and if I’d been by myself, I probably would have walked out. “You got to listen,” Irving said. “The whole time we were in there, the guy never once said he didn’t want our product–he was mad because he couldn’t get it when he needed it. The secret to making a sale like that is not to overreact, but listen to what the guy really needs and see that he gets it. The most important thing you can do is listen.”

Will with Jimmy Conners, NYC

In November, 1975, I moved to the sporting goods division, which is where I should have been in the first place. My territory was all five boroughs of New York City. It was a ten-million-dollar account, and I made that and above. In addition, I was given the responsibility of signing pro athletes for Converse; I had the Jets, the Giants, the Knicks, the Jets, and the Yankees (I would go to spring training with the Yankees and make sure they had everything they needed.) Famous guys like Reggie Jackson, Larry Bird, Bernard King, and Larry Johnson would call me at home. Yogi Berra called once, and Spring, my youngest daughter, said, “Yogi the Bear is on the phone!”

I worked that job for twenty-nine years, trying to make a difference. Then, in 2000, I made up my mind that Converse was going nowhere. New owners were taking over, and they were looking to flip the company to the highest bidder. I knew I was not part of their plan, so I took my retirement. It was all right with Bev; she knew it was time.

After my stepfather died in 1996, my mother went home to Jackson, and I talked to Bev about moving down there to look after her. Bev was all for it; she loved mama and was like a daughter to her. We owned five acres in Madison County, and I had the dream of building a big house where all of us could live. In 2001, we moved south, back to the town I started out in. Before long, I realized my dream of building a big house in the country was not going to happen. First, every contractor we spoke to quoted a price way out of our range. Second, I discovered that, no matter how much two women might love each other, each wants her own place.

Bev and I ended up buying a beautiful little house on Kenwood Street in Belhaven. The neighborhood is old and peaceful, and I looked forward to reconnecting with people I’d known as a teenager. As it turned out, this was another dream that, if not lost, was deferred.

One day I brought my oldest friend to the house we had bought. When we got out of the car, I noticed he was hanging back a little, as if he were confused. “Why did you buy a house here?” he asked.  “We never came over here when we were kids. Who do you know lives here?” I said, “I was told there’s only one other black owns a house in Belhaven. Now there’s two.” He had nothing to say after that. Another time, Bev and I invited about ten people over for coffee. The men were uncomfortable, and the women sat with their purses in their laps and said little or nothing. These people will always be friends of ours, and we hope that, one day, whatever discomfort they felt will be a thing of the past.

Farish Street is empty now; all the life is washed out of it, and it will never again be like it was when I was a kid. We can’t return to the past, and often it’s hard to catch up to the present, yet, after eighty years, I find myself looking down the road to bridges I’d like to cross. All I can say now is what I said to Wilpert Bradley on the Spanish Steps so many years ago: “I’m travelling and living my life. Ain’t no problem.”

Faulkner and Welty for Children

What compels writers of great works for adults to write for children? For whatever reason, many do, and some titles are familiar: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and T.S. Eliot wrote a series of whimsical poems published under the title Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

More obscure are Joyce’s, The Cat and the Devil, Twain’s, Advice to Little Girls, Woolf’s, The Widow and the Parrot, Mary Shelley’s The Fisher’s Cot, and then we have these little-known children’s books by two of Mississippi’s brightest literary lights; Welty’s The Shoe Bird and Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.

In 1927, Faulkner gave the story that was to become The Wishing Tree to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. Faulkner was still infatuated with Estelle and had hopes of her leaving her current husband and marrying him, which she did in 1929. Faulkner typed the book on colored paper, bound it himself and included a lyrical dedication:

          To Victoria

     ‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells; mine air
     Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.

     Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve,
   Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’

But Faulkner made copies for three other children as well and when Victoria tried to publish the book decades later, copyright had to be worked out between the four. In 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese.

The Wishing Tree is a grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious red-haired boy in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92-year old man through a “soft wisteria scented mist” to find the Wishing Tree. They wish, and they unwish, and at the end they meet St. Francis who gives them each a bird–a little winged thought.  The Wishing Tree is about the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration. “If you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.”

On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, which went through three printings that year alone and no more. The book is now regarded as a literary curio from the man who put an Ole Miss coed in a cathouse in Memphis.

Eudora Welty finished what was to become The Shoe Bird in 1963 under the working title Pepe to fulfill a contractual obligation to Harcourt Brace—and to put a new roof on her house. She sent the final draft to Diarmund Russell in March, and he was enthusiastic: “totally charming—something all ages can read.” Eudora readied what was now entitled The Shoe Bird for publication in early 1964 with illustrations by Beth Krush, dedicating it to Bill and Emmy Maxwell’s daughters, Kate and Brookie.

The Shoe Bird is Arturo, a parrot who works in The Friendly Shoe Store “in a shopping center in the middle of the U.S.A.,” helping Mr. Friendly greet customers and bringing him a match for his end-of-the-day pipe. Arturo’s motto is: If you hear it, tell it. One day, a little boy who was leaving the store said, “Shoes are for the birds!” and after the store had closed Arturo, true to his motto, repeats the phrase and all the birds in the world—including a dodo and a phoenix—gather at the shoe store to be fitted for shoes. The Shoe Bird is a nice little story with lots of puns, but it’s heavy-handed with the moral of speaking for oneself instead of just repeating what others say.

Reviews in adult publications were “cordial but restrained,” while reception among children’s literature commentators was either negative or—as in the case of the influential Horn Book, nonexistent. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as uneventful and concludes: “the overly wordy result is so obscure that readers are likely to want to leave dictionaries as well as shoes to the birds.” An orchestral ballet was composed by Welty’s friend Lehman Engel and performed by the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1968. A 2002 choral piece was also commissioned by the Mississippi Boy Choir and composed by Samuel Jones.

As to what compels a writer to write for children, can it ever be as simple as to win over a childhood sweetheart, or to roof a house? It’s never that simple, and it’s not that easy.

A Mississippi Pavlova

This past week the web was hopping with a vid of kangaroos frolicking in the snow—not something you see every day—a reminder that while here in Mississippi we’re sick of the heat, down under in New South Wales it’s the dead of winter. This December, when we’re beginning to have our first heavy frosts, people in Australia and New Zealand will be getting ready to celebrate Christmas in balmy sub-tropical breezes. We’ll be making fruitcakes, but they’ll be making pavlovas.

A pavlova is meringue base or shell filled with whipped cream and fruit, a dessert, light as a ballerina, and this patronym is the only thing about the dish that’s agreed upon. Australians claim that it was invented in a hotel in Perth, and any respectable Kiwi will bristle at the thought. Then there are those who will tell you that a pavlova meringue should have a soft center while others insist it should be dried and crisp throughout. Suit yourself.

Meringues have a reputation for being tricky and if you’re clumsy they are. The egg whites mustn’t contain a bit of fat, so make sure no yolk remains, and don’t whip them in a plastic bowl. Bring the whites to room temperature before whipping (use a mixer, trust me on this), and while back in the day humid weather could make a meringue heavy, in air-conditioned homes it’s not a factor. Vinegar or lemon juice helps stabilize the froth, and don’t add sugar until the soft peak stage. See? What’d I tell you? Not tricky at all.

While the Chinese gooseberry—renamed the kiwi fruit by New Zealanders in a brazen attempt at origin status—and passion fruit are “original”, strawberries and blueberries are traditional, but any fruit can be used. Pavlovas can also be made with chocolate and caramels, candies and nuts. We’re getting in the best peaches of the year now, which make a beautiful pavlova.

Preheat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a circle in the middle. parchment paper. For one meringue base, whip four egg whites until the peaks are soft. Gradually add one cup confectioner’s sugar, a spoonful at a time, until the whites are glossy, then gently blend in a teaspoon each vanilla extract and lemon juice and two teaspoons cornstarch. Spoon meringue onto the parchment paper circle. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, leaving a slight depression in the center. Bake for half hour, more if the center feels squishy. Top (or layer) with whipped cream and fruit. Chopped pistachios are a nice touch.

 

 

Magic Pie

My grandmother Monette was a woman of many parts: a wit and a wag, a poet and historian, she raised two children who became remarkable people in their own right. She belonged to a generation of women who entered the workplace in time of war, and unlike her mother or daughter she never became a good cook. She along with millions of other women relied more on any given product’s “recommended recipes” than hand-me-downs or innovation. As a result, my Southern Baby-Boomer cuisine—for which, I might add, I barely qualify—is peppered with dishes fabricated in test kitchens.

Green bean casserole is the most popular of these concoctions, but there are dozens of others, including lemon icebox pie. Many early recipes include the word “magic”, as if cooling ingredients for preparation were more metaphysical than heating. Ingredients usually include canned milk of some sort, sweetened or not, as well as meringue or whipped cream, either in the filling or lightly-baked as topping. This recipe is from The Country Gourmet, distributed by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in 1983, which includes a short forward by Eudora Welty ending with the marvelously ambiguous: “Guarding and protecting, trying to save, all life on earth is a need we all alike share.”

Beat six ounces of whipped topping with a thawed can of lemonade concentrate and a can of condensed milk. Pour into a graham cracker pie crust and chill one hour before serving.

 

The Celluloid Classroom

A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford was a laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the ’80s was seeded in that time. Those years were halcyon years for me, as they were for many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.

The Hoka from the southwest, late 70s. The mural of the dancers was painted by Jere Allen. Photo by Douglass Boyles.

Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theatre was located across a parking lot from the Gin, one of the first restaurant and bar to open in Oxford after Lafayette County voted “wet”. The theatre was set up in a long, corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short-roofed porch with a paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess. The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people, though our audiences were usually much smaller. The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny untidy office, and the concession stand sold candy, popcorn and soft drinks. We sold tickets from a roll atop what looked like a rough-hewn pulpit at the top of the sloping concrete floor.  Inside the projection booth was a table for processing incoming film–checking it for tears, bad splices, twists, or crimps–and the projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with a complex procedure involving levers and foot pedals to switch from one reel to the other. A typical film might be on five or six reels.

Ron and me at the drive-in, summer of 1978.

I began working at the Hoka in 1977. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were very popular and, of course, profitable. Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three reels of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on our projector reels. Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted.

Photo of the Hoka from the southeast, likely early 80s.

Ron also taught me a lot, and I do mean a lot, about movies. At that time, in that part of the world, movies were still considered by most people to be nothing more than entertainment, but for Ron, as they were for many others like him who operated small independent “art cinemas” across the country, cinema was the leading form of art in the 20th century.  When we first showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience–and the projectionists, I might add–stared open-mouthed at the screen, and when the audience began throwing rice at the wedding, hollering phrases at the screen and doing the Time Warp, we just eventually joined in the fun. Ron also showed a lot of great movies by cutting-edge artists like John Waters, Russ Meyers and William Castle. Several years later, Betty Blair Allen opened the Moonlight Café in the Hoka, and it became a very special sort of place for dinner and a movie.

At a time when film was just coming into its own as an academic medium, Shapiro introduced generations of Ole Miss students to the works of Fellini, Wilder, Woody Allen, Capra, and Chaplain, to name a few, and brought to light (literally) unknown images: Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Lang’s electric automaton in Metropolis, a leather-clad Brando leaning on a jukebox in The Wild One. For me, this is the essence of Ron Shapiro’s legacy: the Hoka brought film as an art form to Mississippi.

Local Lore

Local history is the beggar at Clio’s feast. In the hierarchy of history topmost are works on great wars, empires and cultures; next histories of countries, commerce and important cities; then finally—after a considerable gap—comes state and local history, the latter often denigrated as nothing more than amateur obsessions.

State and local histories command little professional attention because they receive the least academic funding, the fewest and least government loans or grants, and the smallest lectern on official and scholastic stages. In those the folklorist with his dancing palette and anthropological basis commands more respect. Professional historians deride local history as poorly-researched, ill-written and hopelessly insular. This criticism can and is levelled at history written on any level; simply read The American Historical Review for confirmation.

Yet who can scorn research as insufficient when conducted with so little material in place? How often does Gibbon himself sound as if he’s labored far too late and drunk far too much port? Who can say that the storming of the Bastille isn’t local history to Parisians, or an account of the Beer Hall Putsch isn’t to Bavarians? The least parts of history come together to form the whole, and in the smallest arenas of mankind we can discern a microcosm of the whole.

Let us treasure those who, compelled by their love of place, put before us a likeness of how it was before our time, teaching us who we are, revealing how our little part of the world shapes our lives and strengthens our hearts.

A History of Greater Belhaven is available at the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation office for a donation of $20 (or more). Copies may be obtained by contacting Casey Creasey at (601) 352-8850 or email  her at ccreasey@greaterbelhaven.com.

A History of Greater Belhaven by Bill and Nan Harvey

Red Rose Sausage Delivery

When we saw Polk’s driver Michael Newton making a delivery of Red Rose Sausage to Froogel’s Supermarket on Fortification in Jackson, Mississippi, we had to get a photo. Since making the first post on red rose sausage over three years ago, people across the country have been contacting Mississippi Sideboard about this product, which they all say–in one way or another–that they remember with fondness from growing up in Mississippi, and our posts on red rose sausage receive the most consistently heavy traffic year after year. Thank you, Michael!

Michael Newton with a batch of Red Rose Sausage

Woodrick’s “The Civil War Siege of Jackson”: A Review

In the Memorial Hall Foundation Museum in New Orleans sits a chunky Chickering “square” parlor piano manufactured in Boston in the 1840s. The piano, the former proud possession of the Cooper family of Jackson, Mississippi, once helped to shore up a Civil War redoubt facing south along the Jackson Railroad line. The fortification was manned by the Fifth Company Washington Artillery, part of General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate “Army of Relief” defending Jackson against the forces of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

On the sweltering morning of July 12, the Confederates began playing the piano, oblivious to the Federal line advancing on their position. The men sang songs of home as their skirmish line was pushed back behind the redoubts, and while the men were called to their guns, the pianist, Private Andrew Swain, began playing “You Shan’t Have Any of My Peanuts.” The attack began, but the Confederate line held, and Swain resumed his place on the piano to play “Oh, Let Us Rejoice.”

The saga of the Cooper family’s piano is just one of the many wonderful stories that enrich Jim Woodrick’s The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi, an account of Sherman’s little-known and less-documented attack on Mississippi’s capital after the fall of Vicksburg in July, 1863. The Siege of Jackson, as Terrence Winschel observes in his introduction, was “the final, yet seldom mentioned scene of ‘the great drama’—i.e. the campaign for control of the Mississippi River.” The capital of Mississippi became, for that week, a battlefield. Its capitulation capped Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, put a black band around the Confederate war effort, and reduced the nascent city of Jackson to smoking ruins.

In the spring of 1863, the war in the west focused on Vicksburg. Lincoln told his civilian and military leaders, “Vicksburg is the key!” Confederate President Davis was of the same mind: “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” In Confederate hands, Vicksburg blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi and allowed communications and reinforcements from Confederates to the west. The natural defenses of the city led to its nickname, the Gibraltar of the South.

Earlier in the Vicksburg Campaign, Union General Ulysses S. Grant became convinced that Confederate forces assembling in or near Jackson might be stronger than he had initially supposed. The eradication of Jackson was essential for two reasons: first, Jackson was a focal point for the relief of Vicksburg, with a railhead and the entire Confederacy behind it; secondly the destruction of the capital city of President Davis’s home state presented a significant opportunity to demoralize Confederate leadership and the Confederacy itself.

In a torrential downpour on May 14, 1863, Grant’s men drove through Johnston’s weak defenses and captured Jackson. To conserve his forces, Johnston abandoned the city and withdrew to Canton. Weeks later, after Grant besieged Vicksburg, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon urged Johnston to relieve the river city. Seddon, however, refused to send Johnston reinforcements, and Johnston declared that “saving Vicksburg is hopeless.”

Nevertheless, in mid-May, when General William Loring and some five thousand Confederate troops entered Jackson, Johnston set about organizing a relief column. On June 28, he began moving west, and advanced as far as the Big Black River only to discover that Vicksburg had fallen on July 4. Johnston retreated to Jackson, fortified the city, and by July 10 was invested by greatly superior Union forces under William T. Sherman. The siege of Jackson had begun.

Map by Howard Bahr

For Jackson readers, The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi—hereafter, The Siege of Jackson—brings the violence of a hundred and fifty-six years ago to street level. Novelist and historian Howard Bahr observes that few current residents of Mississippi’s capital city are aware of the dramatic events of July, 1863: “The reader may well be surprised, as I was, by the scope of this operation and the great violence and loss of life that occurred on the ground we walk over every day. Jim Woodrick’s account, well-written and meticulously researched, offers for the first time a detailed, comprehensive narrative of the weeklong siege supported by maps, period drawings, an Order of Battle, and photographs. The account is enlivened by humorous anecdotes and, more important perhaps, a focus on individual participants and the personal tragedies of soldiers who died far from home.”

The Siege of Jackson is very much a work of scholarship. Terrence Winschel, author of the introduction, has recently retired as the Chief Historian of the Vicksburg Military Park; Woodrick, a native of Meridian, graduated from Millsaps with a degree in political science, was active in the Jackson Civil War Round Table, and is currently the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History.

Woodrick said he decided to write The Siege of Jackson for two reasons.

First of all, only one book has been previously published that covered the Jackson campaign and the subsequent siege, and that book, published in 1980 by the Jackson Civil War Round Table, combined the siege with the May 14, 1863, battle of Jackson, When I first started exploring the possibility of a book on Jackson, it was actually intended to be an updated version of that book with one of the original co-authors, Warren Grabau. Unfortunately, Warren passed away before we could tackle that project and the idea went to the back burner for a time.

But the idea of writing about the Siege of Jackson stayed with me,” Woodrick said, “and the more I studied the campaign the more I felt it deserved to be studied on its own. Considering that I work next door to the Old Capitol Museum – essentially in the middle of the siege lines – I thought it fitting that I be the one to tell the story of the approximately 70,000 men – blue and gray – who fought for a week in July 1863 for control of Mississippi’s capital city.

Woodrick’s retelling of the siege is a significant upgrade from that of Bearrs and Grabau, who primarily concentrate on military aspects of the action. Woodrick’s version is far more inclusive, incorporating, vivid descriptions of the action, details of the terrain, conditions and armaments and profiles and accounts of individual soldiers and commanders. It is an essential book for Jacksonians interested in the city’s history and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the Civil War.

Woodrick went on to say:

When I started working on the book, I was perhaps most interested in the two army commanders involved in the siege,” Woodrick went on to say. “Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston would meet again, but the Jackson Campaign is actually the first time they faced each other, and the siege of Jackson is, I think, an interesting look into their leadership abilities at this point in the war.

A re-enactor as well as a military historian, Woodrick writes for readers interested in military history and tactics, a demanding audience indeed. Woodrick rises to the occasion by describing in detail the most significant—and bloodiest—action of the week-long siege: Union Brigadier General Jacob Lauman’s calamitous assault on Breckinridge’s Division in the Confederate redoubt southwest of the city where the entrenched Washington Artillery manned two James rifles, four Napoleons, and a Chickering piano.

Woodrick ensures the book’s broader appeal by positioning the siege of Jackson within the framework of the Vicksburg Campaign, which is—to Mississippians, at least—the most familiar military action of the Civil War. Woodrick underscores the importance of both the Battle of Jackson (May 14, 1863) and Siege of Jackson as components of Grant’s successful Siege of Vicksburg and Union domination of the Mississippi, in both instances to eradicate Jackson as platform for Confederate forces. Woodrick says:

In a cursory sense, I suppose the campaign could be viewed as simply a rearguard action, but I think that’s selling it far short. In reality, the Siege of Jackson is the exclamation mark at the end of the Vicksburg Campaign. Having finally achieved the long-sought goal of capturing Vicksburg, Grant simply could not ignore Johnston’s still-intact army looming to the east, and in that sense, I think it was critical to the ultimate success of the Vicksburg Campaign. Unfortunately, because of events in Pennsylvania (i.e., Gettysburg), the Jackson Campaign in many ways gets overlooked by historians (and at the time), especially since the siege didn’t end in a grand charge or the capture of an army (as at Vicksburg). That doesn’t diminish the importance of the campaign, however, in finally securing the Mississippi River for the Union.

The fall of Jackson affected Mississippians viscerally. Jefferson Davis wrote in July, 1863, “In these times of disaster, when my relations and nearest friends are the objects of most cruel animosity, when my beloved Mississippi is being overrun by the invader, I deeply feel my want of that sustaining power which had in times past upheld the just cause, and given to the weak the power to defend the strong.” Even after Vicksburg’s capture, the fall of Jackson sent a shudder throughout the Confederacy.

While Sherman and Johnston are key players in Woodrick’s bloody drama, the central player is the city of Jackson itself. “As the book progressed, I think the most interesting ‘character’ to emerge was the city itself and, of course, the stories of the common soldiers who served here and–for some­–who died here,” Woodrick said.

One of the main points that I intended to make when I began the book was to disprove, once and for all, the story of “Chimneyville”. Based on a number of factors, I was convinced that the oft-told stories of Jackson’s destruction were in large part myth. As I looked closely at the evidence, however, I discovered that the opposite was true–that Jackson and her citizens did indeed suffer catastrophic losses as a result of the siege, both from Union soldiers and Confederate troops. As a result, Jackson was in large part reduced to rubble.

Charred ruins of Bowman House Hotel with Capitol Building.

Sherman’s signature scorched earth policy was initiated in Jackson. Bruce Catton, in Grant Moves South (1960), writes, “every installation which might conceivably be of use to a struggling Confederacy were destroyed with grim effectiveness. Sherman reported to Grant that ‘Jackson cannot again become a place for the assemblage of men and material with which to threaten the Mississippi River.’ private soldiers looked at the wreckage and gave Jackson the descriptive name of ‘Chimneyville,’ and on July 23, Sherman pulled his army back and prepared to give all hands a rest. He left a desert behind him.”

Contemporary accounts of the devastation are hyperbolic. Although Sherman assured Mayor Manship and a committee of twenty prominent citizens that “all citizens acting in good faith will be respected by me and my command,”  George Whitman, a soldier in the 51st new York Infantry and the younger brother of poet Walt Whitman, reported, “Soon after we entered [the city], the western troops began to come in and they ransacked and plundered completely.” Another Union soldiers reported, “I never saw or heard of a city being so thoroughly sacked and burned as this place.” Contemporary newspapers also confirm the devastation. The New York Herald: “As our men would reach private dwelling houses they would enter them and in a short time scenes of the most unmitigated plundering took place.” The Memphis Bulletin: “Lazy, contemptible stragglers could be seen. . . engaged in dividing their ill-gotten plunder, which consisted of fine silks, shoes, ladies’ bonnets . . . my pen can never record what outrage was done that day.

The following eyewitness account appeared in the Canton American Citizen while Sherman’s troops were still tearing up the railroad: “One must visit Jackson to learn the extent of the destruction it has sustained. It is a mere wreck of its former self . . . look in whichever direction you may from the front of the Capitol, ruins meet the eye. The numerous chimneys still standing upon burnt districts and the undisturbed debris of charred walls and destroyed wares will remain until the end of the war, silent but terrible monuments to the devastating inroad of the vandal hoards. . .”

Woodrick’s portrait of pre-war Jackson at the outbreak of hostilities in the 1860s reveals it to be a provincial town that became a capital without ever becoming a city. Jackson had barely begun to build before it was destroyed. By 1866, “Chimneyville” was on the mend. Woodrick includes a panoramic photograph of Jackson taken from the cupola of the state capitol in 1869 as documentary evidence of an “expanding but still somewhat rural city” and dismisses doubts the photograph might raise about the actual extent of damage to the city by reference to the “overwhelming number of primary accounts and evidence of rebuilding found in newspapers of the period.” Finally, Woodrick provides us with what few physical reminders of the siege that remain, and concludes, elegantly:

Jackson has not changed to such a degree that the battlefield cannot be understood, and there are areas throughout Jackson where interpretation could be used to explain what took place. Such an effort would in some small way help in remembering the sacrifices made by the men in blue and gray during those hot days in July 1863. We owe them nothing less.