Chocolate Gravy

Mamaw Onsby lived in a small two-room house set back from ours under a huge white oak with thick knotted roots that gripped the earth like the toes of Antaeus. She had come to live there after her husband of sixty-odd years had died, and she was perfectly content, rarely coming to our house to visit, usually sitting at home listening to the radio and reading her Bible. Daddy tried to put an air conditioner in her window, but she wouldn’t have it. She was a tiny old woman, not much taller than I was at 11 when she died, and like many women of her generation who considered smoking unladylike, Mamaw dipped snuff (Garrett) and would make snuff out of cocoa and sugar for us to dip with twigs from the big black gum tree that grew near the road.

Her home was an early destination for me and her other great-grandchildren because she would make biscuits every morning, big, fat cat-head biscuits that she baked in an antediluvian skillet. Mamaw usually made sawmill gravy to go with the biscuits, but my brother Tom always asked her to make chocolate gravy. She’d look at him and say, “Oh, this thickenin’ gravy ain’t good enough for you, is it?” My brotherTom, little devil he was, would say “NO!” as loud as he could, and Mamaw, with a mumble about him being “just like a damned Onsby” would make chocolate gravy. The rest of us to be polite always had a biscuit with regular gravy, but she made us have another with chocolate “so it won’t be wasted”. It never was.

Heat two cups whole milk with a pat of butter; mix very well three tablespoons cocoa, two tablespoons plain flour, three quarters of a cup of sugar, add to warm milk with a whisk, stirring vigorously to prevent lumping. Heat until gravy thickens. Some people add vanilla to this, but for the life of me, I don’t know why.

Our Imperiled Pea

Most of us know Mississippi silver hulls as a crowders, and y’all are probably as surprised as I was to find that they’re an endangered variety of field peas (Vigna unguiculata). Silver hulls thrive in the lower Mid-South; the 6″ pods carry blocky black or brown-eyed peas that “crowd” one another in the pod. Easy to shell, fresh seeds have a thin skin, giving them a cleaner flavor. Sad to say, field peas of any kind just aren’t grown much any more.

Allison’s Wells

A primary function of Mississippi Sideboard is to provide access to documents of specific interest in danger of being lost. Hosford Fontaine’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa (Muscadine Press: 1981), certainly qualifies. This wonderful work was printed only once, and, according to Fred Smith of Choctaw Books, the press plates were melted.

When Allison’s Wells was destroyed by fire in January, 1963, the event was considered a major calamity for the city of Jackson, since the resort functioned as a significant event venue for the city as well as a popular weekend getaway and the site of a thriving artists’ colony, but the spa had a long history of appeal throughout the Mid-South. Periodicals from the 1890s through the 1920s are filled with reports of people traveling to Allison’s, and advertisements were run in papers across mid-America both by the hotel itself and by the Illinois Central Railroad whose small depot at Way, Mississippi (nine miles north of Canton) was only about a mile away. An Illinois Central notice promoting five resorts, including Allison’s, located along its line ran in many newspapers in 1902.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1921 advertised I C RR rates from New Orleans to Allison’s Wells as $8.65. It was $26 to St. Louis and $33 to Chicago. The healthful benefits of the mineral water at Allison’s were an important attraction. An Allison’s Wells ad in the 1921 Times-Picayune stated that: “Time for a vacation? Here’s the place. Rest and Recreation, Hot Sulphur Baths for Skin Disorders and Unsurpassed Mineral Water for Malaria.” The November, 1953 issue of Lincoln-Mercury Times described it as: “A hotel, a resort, an inn, a spa, home, grandma’s house, a weekend at a wealthy friend’s — it combines the best of all of these.” A 1921 description of Allison’s Wells from the Grenada Sentinel could just as easily describe the Gray Center which now occupies the site of the old resort. It is “…an ideal place to commune with nature and to forget for a short while the turmoil and rush of a busy world.”

Foreword
By Charlotte Capers

It is hard for me to realize that Allison’s Wells has to be explained, for it was such a special part of Mississippi life in the forties and fifties. The prospect of a weekend at Allison’s was enough to sustain me through the week; a thirty-mile drive from Jackson on twenty-five cent gasoline led to another world. There at the end of a winding gravel road off old Highway 51 the rambling resort hotel sparkled in summer with its seasonal coat of white paint, and in the kitchen an ancient black cook produced culinary marvels on a fragrant wood stove. The old well house was a reminder of the magical properties attributed to its healing waters; waters temporarily healing and more palatable were available in the Fishes’ Club. The Pavilion was the focal point of constant activity, from snapping beans to painting portraits, and the heart of Allison’s was the dining room, dim and cool, where dignified family servants served memorable meals to diners from Jackson, Canton, the Delta, the hills, and metropolitan areas as far away as Memphis. Presiding over the whole production with grace and charm were John and Hosford Fontaine, the hereditary proprietors, who dressed for dinner because dinner was worth dressing for, and expected you to do the same.

Perhaps it should be noted that Allison’s Wells was not for everybody. There were and are those who might prefer a Holiday Inn. It is true that at Allison’s there was a good deal of uncertainty. Allison’s regulars learned to expect the unexpected, and that was part of the fun. For example, it happened upon one occasion that the dreamy youngster at the registration desk assigned two honeymoon couples to the same bedroom. When the Art Colony was in session experimental art might appear mysteriously in the guest rooms, the plumbing was always independent, and for several seasons chicken wire was much in favor for decorating effects. Mattresses and springs varied in quality from room to room, and old friends might be quickly switched from A-grade accommodations to an A-minus room if an A-plus dignitary of church or state hove into view. No matter, this is the stuff conversation is made of, and no planned activities were necessary so long as the guests had the other guests to talk about.

In a laudable effort to cool the dining room one hot Mississippi summer, an ingenious window fan was rigged up, which was supposed to blow through wet straw, thus cooling the air in the dining area and producing an early version of air conditioning. The straw was to be kept wet by a hose, which ran from a tub of water on the porch to the straw packed in the window. On the occasion of a July birthday party, soap bubbles suddenly burst upon the startled diners. At first, the dinner guests were simply amazed. They later compared notes, and reported that they all saw spots before their eyes at the same time. After much slapping at the air, the spots were identified as soap bubbles, which burst impartially into the soup, the salad, and the entree. It seems that the hose had inadvertently been immersed in the laundry tub, thus producing the unexpected visual effects. Was Hosford daunted by this phantasmagoria? Not at all. When a sudsy guest complained she smiled sweetly and said, “Darling, isn’t it wonderful? Where but at Allison’s could this have happened?”

As has been shown, Hosford was an early exponent of positive thinking. She could be seen any cold morning in early spring or late fall strolling gracefully toward the ice-cold swimming pool, fed by waters which must have originated in a glacier. Without changing pace, she would step lightly into the pool, do a few brisk laps, and float out, with never a sign to indicate that the temperature of the water was below freezing. This attitude enabled her to convince newcomers to the spa that shelling peas was fun, darning old table linen an art, and dredging leaves out of the swimming pool a game. Regulars knew better, but all had to serve their apprenticeship.

The ultimate reward for being a good guest was an invitation to “the Retreat.” This meant a drink before dinner with John and Hosford in their bosky hideaway beneath their own apartment. A basement space had been screened and floored with bricks; outside a cornfield pressed close, and vines of various denominations clung to the screens. Inside there was candlelight and conversation. If there should be a lull in the conversation, which was unlikely, you might hear an owl hoot or a dove mourn. The Retreat’s furnishings were eclectic, and so were the guests. John and Hosford might gather together a collection of artists and writers, clergymen and cotton planters, bridge players and ordinary people, provided they all seemed to be guests of good will. If their will was not good when they entered the retreat, it was usually good when they left. A white-coated waiter brought ice and real napkins, two drinks, no more, no less, were served, tall tales were told, and the stories got funnier with the second drink.

Allison’s Wells burned to the ground in 1963, shortly after John’s death. John’s water colors, Hosford’s oils, as well as papers, books, silver, antique furniture, and souvenirs of almost fifty years were lost in the fire. Many of us who belonged to the Allison’s enclave lost more than that. We lost a special place that had preserved for us a special time and enhanced our lives.

These random memories, perhaps inaccurate, may serve to suggest the spirit of the place. I hope so. Allison’s was worth a book, written by John with Hosford as the heroine. As it has fallen Hosford’s lot to write the book as well as play the lead, I’m sure she is equal to the task.

History of Allison’s Wells before the Sam Wherry and Latimer Families

In 1899 my Grandfather, Sam Wherry, a horticulturist, who shipped from Durant the first carload of strawberries from the state of Mississippi, bought the property of Allison’s Wells from Mrs. Mary B. Allison, a widow originally from New Orleans.

Mrs. Allison first lived on the Original Natchez Trace where the gullies are. When the road was opened off of Highway 51 a main road to Way to the Illinois Central Railroad, she moved to Allison’s with her family. In 1879 Parson Hargon dug a well for the Allison’s and discovered this strange tasting water – medicinal. This health-giving water brought people to come and drink the water and buy it. It was of particular value in the treatment of malaria, a purgative as well as a tonic water, with all the minerals. So it was necessary to build the cottages on the hill for health seekers who came for weeks and months, as well as to enlarge the original home for guests.

When Sam Wherry, my grandfather bought their place the Allison’s moved about a mile away toward Way, which became known as the Allison’s House. Mrs. Allison’s son, Matt, spent his entire life time searching for the supposedly buried gold in the gullies off the Natchez Trace during the Civil War. A life time of digging, but he never found it. The Allison’s Water was from a shallow well pumped by hand — a red pump and it was sparkling, bubbling, ice cold and quite palatable at the well, but harder to drink when allowed to settle, because the heavy minerals had a slightly oily film which developed. Such a shock to attempt to mix an alcoholic drink with this ice-cold water for it turned the drink black from the content of the sulphur.

ANALYSIS OF THE 1879 WATER
by W.T. Hand, State Chemist

Silicia: 5.722
Potassium Sulphate: 1.540
Sodium Chloride: 10.640
dium Sulphate: 3.135
Calcium Sulphate: 81.537
Magnesium Sulphate: 35.656
Iron Sulphate: 12.439
Iron Oxide: .2.028
Total: 214,203

The flow, the quantity, the mineral content never changed through the years.

.A History of ALLISON’S WELLS from 1890 to 1938

In 1900 under Sam Wherry, Allison’s was a convivial health and pleasure resort, first famous for the heavy mineral water — Allison’s Water, so called – which was a tonic as well as a purgative. The resort developed with my father first a partner – Latimer and Wherry. Then Wherry sold his interest to P.H. Murphy, his son-in-law, W.H. Jeffers, a contractor, who was in charge of all the extensive building — the men’s row changed to the annex with a real bath house for the men who took the sulphur baths and massages.

It was all in the Wherry connections until Latimer became sole owner in 1909: Latimer & Jeffers until 1909 and from then until 1963, D.C. Latimer & Co. In the continued search for pure drinking water the sulphur well in the lawn was discovered and the curative power of it heated helped to relieve tension and was found to be a real aid in curing any skin trouble. A bath house for men and women was built on the lawn and massages given first just for the men. The emphasis continued under the various partners to be health first with the value of the sulphur baths combined with the real cure of the Allison’s water. Of course, the massages by a trained masseuse was a part of the treatment. Dr. Taylor, a woman osteopath, trained the masseuses. She gave osteopathic treatments and the entire family really enjoyed having a treatment — Mother particularly after a busy day in the kitchen – so relaxing.

Allison’s was a busy, happy place buzzing with action from May through September. The horse drawn bus met the trains for guests at Way four times a day, and the wagon took the water to the station to ship and bring back the trunks of the guests. They came to stay for a month with their families particularly from the Delta, New Orleans and Memphis. It was fun to see the new guests arrive at Allison’s and hear Charlie Plez, the Porter, describe them. The days were filled with the pleasures of the time – horseback riding, buggy riding, hay rides, walks to the gullies, taking pictures in the gullies, tennis, croquet, euchre and auction bridge with expensive, elaborate prizes, music by Bud Scott’s orchestra from 10 to 11 in the pavilion every morning. Bud played for luncheon and dinner every day and the dance every week night with a ball on Thursday night.

An early memory is hearing my grandfather and his two sons rattling the small glasses filled with ice, sugar and bourbon about 10 a.m. – a cold toddy. My first taste later of the remains of the cold toddy – ice, sugar and bourbon.

Allison’s was noted for its fine food. It was such a personal operation by the family that it was really impossible to get anyone who could run the kitchen. My mother, Norma Wherry, managed the kitchen with first chefs from New Orleans and Memphis, but later tenants from the place were trained. My grandmother, Candace Barger Wherry, preceded Mother in running the kitchen. Allison’s menu was developed from cooking from scratch – home grown vegetables, fresh fruit from the orchard, wild muscadines brought from the swamp; even quail and wild ducks occasionally; hams, stuffed sausage, bacon cured in our smoke house. A Jersey herd furnished yellow heavy cream, fresh churned butter and buttermilk; cream of cheese dripped from a sack. Squabs were also served from our own pigeons. All cooking was done from two big black stoves with wood only for fuel until 1955 when an electric stove was added for baking cakes.

Tea time in the Pavilion, 1950s.

Health, gaiety, joy of living was uppermost – silver epergnes filled with fresh fruit and flowers, finger bowls, butter served in high silver compotes with small individual silver plates. The head waiter and white coated men waiters added the right touch of formality and welcome.

Wherry and Latimer operated with vision far ahead of their time. They were the first to have gas lights, then generated their own electricity: Electric lights, running water, toilets indoors and bathroom at the end of the halls and later in each room.

Allison’s was a farm for seven months out of the year and five months a health and pleasure resort. The Opening Ball was the 20th of May usually when Ole Miss ended the semester, and the closing ball around Labor Day. Farming was a real activity, cotton, corn, cattle, pigs, pastures and ponds. The Allison’s water was shipped by the 5-gallon jugs, which was a year-around operation. Regularly a car load of jugs of water would be shipped to and sold by a drugstore in Athens, Georgia. These jugs, if you can find one now, sell for $75.00, if perfect.

My father Douglass Colquhoun Latimer and my mother, Norma Wherry, had a certain formality. Guests dressed for dinner and the dance that followed. Father often called the Virginia Reel and Square Dance at night. Men had to wear coats in the dining room; but if you did not have a coat, he had hooks outside of the dining room with coats on them, which you could borrow. All of the family dressed before they left their bedroom. Mother always looked lovely. She was beautiful – brunette with brown hair and brown eyes and a skin you loved to touch. Daddy called her “Young Lady”. She was ever a Young Lady. She died at age 53.

Flowers were her hobby, along with sewing and embroidery. One year the front was filled with enormous chrysanthemums and the Maréchal Niel roses all across the front – a mass of yellow roses — so fragrant. When everyone dressed for dinner in the evening, my one desire was to look as lovely as the young ladies. So, one day, at the age of 7, I wore several dresses and a pair of red slippers. It did not work.

After being dressed one afternoon in white, which was normal, we children all went plum hunting. Of course, it was muddy. We came in bedraggled and Mother immediately put us to bed without dinner. Daddy was very stern, but very soft hearted. He fixed our dinner himself – a thin broiled steak like veal, fresh tomatoes and buttered hot rolls — and brought it to us. Mother had punished us, so she really did not mind. On went the music outside of our room – Bud Scott at his best – probably feeling sorry for us in bed.

School days — a public school of one room, where we had to have five pupils. The two Allison girls along with the three of us, Thelma, Sam and me. We walked to the end of the Men’s row, so called, to the Fishes Club for our schoolroom. This had been the room where the men gambled. A professional gambler usually spent the summer at the Wells.

Later we caught the train at Way to go to school in Canton usually driven to the station by our Uncle Harvey Latimer, who lived with my grandmother, Angelena Lancashire Latimer, born in London, England. The property was bought in 1905 and my father built the home, now Gray’s Center an Episcopal Center, for my grandmother and Uncle Harvey. I lived with them for a year when I was seven years old.

We had three modes of transportation every school day. At first either horse and buggy or carriage and then a car to catch the train at Way – No. 33 to Canton. We then walked from the Canton station a mile to school and perchance if we forgot our lunch and left it on the train, we walked to town to Mosby’s Drug Store to charge 50 cents and buy an oyster loaf for lunch. The money was charged to Allison’s and probably no bill was sent until after the Fourth of July, which was the financial cure for Allison’s.

Douglass, the youngest, who never wore shoes or a hat to school, frequently had the train passengers taking up a collection to buy him shoes. No, he did not take the money, but instead got real mad. When Douglass was in the first grade in the Canton School, he missed his train one winter afternoon, and when he did not arrive at Way, a frantic search for him began. Winter dark rapidly coming — cold — and where was the little boy? The stark terror when Daddy realized that Douglass must be walking home on the railroad track. Visions of seeing him crushed by the on-coming trains. The blessed relief to rush to meet this tiny sobbing child that had walked ten miles to get home.

Strawberries were grown commercially and we children picked some and were paid extra for it. I sold The Commercial Appeal—a source of income—as a child. Douglass Latimer was a great gardener and we had a large vegetable garden as well as flowers—worked in and managed by Daddy. He rose early, worked in the garden and oversaw the milking of the Jersey herd. We sold butter in Canton.

When he appeared for the day Daddy had on a Manhattan shirt starched by the laundry. One of his joys as he ran the office was the usual afternoon set back or poker game on the porch outside of the office with close friends. He had many – from all walks of life. We all adored him and though over 50 years have passed, he is an ever-present personality. He was ever filled with sternness and deep warmth and love for humanity and especially for his wife, “Young Lady”, and his children.

ALLISON’S from 1938 to 1963

As 1938 opened with John and Hosford coming home to Allison’s it brought back memories of life in Boston and how Allison’s was remembered there with such nostalgic memories that when the radio would play “Take Me Home Again Kathleen” I would burst into tears, though quite happy in Boston. And John and my son Doug would laugh. I talked about Allison’s as I went through life – a period filled with happiness, dancing, playing dolls, playing bridge, euchre and early and late dates, with the great love of my mother and father and family. When I think of it today it is like another world. As children and young ladies, we were never presented with the problems, but of course there must have been problems.

John was first advertising manager of The United Drug Co. and next the vice-president of The United Drug Co. His most inventive bit of advertising was The Rexall Train, which traveled all over the United States displaying Rexall products. Mr. Liggett, the President, was aboard and they had a big party at each big city where they stopped for tours.

Home again with the unloading of the big van from Boston with part of our possessions at Allison’s and the rest on Lookout Mountain, Tenn., Chattanooga, where John was connected with Nelson Chesman Advertising and later a partner. In the winter we lived on Lookout Mountain, and in the summer, I ran Allison’s with John and all the employees’ help. John drove down twice a month – an eight-hour trip and spent his vacation at Allison’s.

When John and Hosford bought the Latimer heirs out — Sam, Douglass and Norma — the emphasis continued on high living and health, joining the National Spa Association, going to the meetings – one at Hot Springs – and having the national group at Allison’s. The Saratoga Springs Group gave a cocktail party in the rose garden at the gazebo with Ellis and Preston serving them in white coats – a not to be forgotten moment in time — moonlight, roses and jasmine.

Allison’s Wells, c. 1944

Emphasis on unusual and good meals, beauty, landscaping; flowers everywhere in and out, large arrangements done by Parthenia in the living room as well as fresh flowers on every table in the dining room. These were often done by my Aunt, Mrs. S.D. Wilson of Tupelo. Ed O’Leary, the gardener and an ardent Catholic, hated to see Evy have so many of the flowers picked. Evy was a real designer with flowers, but she liked a mass of blooms the best. She won many prizes. Bowls of fresh sweet peas on each table in the dining room an Allison’s tradition.

A continued feature of Allison’s was the delicious food along with the art activities, as well as the many, many retreats and workshops and meetings. Everything was cooked on two big black stoves with wood brought up steep steps to the kitchen. Allison’s was written up in a number of magazines as “Off the Beaten Path,” which after sixteen years an inquiry comes: “How to reach Allison’s? I wish I knew How.” Duncan Hines included Allison’s and a feature article by Wendreoth Saunders, the artist, was published in The Lincoln-Mercury Times in November and December 1953.

Allison’s, which had been leased to Dr. Brown after the death of my mother and sister Thelma, needed a real face-lift and a return of the sparkle of living with emphasis on beauty, comfort and today’s feeling of life. This meant landscaping, rebuilding. As you entered, the bare clay hill was planted in peas to enrich the soil – so eventually out came the beautiful rose garden with the gazebo.

This presented a real challenge to my husband John, who was an engineer, an architect, a writer, a fine watercolorist and an advertising executive. He brought the joy and beauty and fun of living back to Allison’s. The redecorating continued when John retired and was an account executive with Godwin Advertisers in Jackson. Son John III is chairman of the board there now. Bathrooms were added to most of the rooms, the men’s sulphur bathrooms had a face-lift. The tops of the old toilet tanks became metal planters with flowers at the entrance. The artists painted them – “Realism” in today’s language; in yesterday’s language, “An old reality of time gone by object.” The ladies’ sulphur bathrooms were moved upstairs where Parthenia reigned supreme with the great massages.

The entrance was moved from the lower gate to the upper gate, a pleasing brick entrance planted with flowers, clumps of wisteria trees – shrubs marking the entrance and to the right the beautiful rose garden with Latvian touch to the gazebo. Beds of roses divided by brick walks — running roses in the background — perennials in beds around the center rose beds. Douglass Latimer, my brother, was bringing a bride home, Leigh Barret from Texas, so the first major rebuilding was a bridal suite for them in the annex upstairs last rooms where it overlooked the rose garden as well as the pool and grounds – beautiful view.

With the arrival of our displaced Latvians, Janis and Leontine Lazdin, John had a real engineer Janis to help with the continued improvements, the gazebo and featured seat in the rose garden, the boat house and seats down by the pond down the hill from the garden, which was also a feature in the nature trail, which was developed by “The Canton Garden Club” with the aid of the County Forester, who also marked the trees in the woods. Yes, I was and am a member.

The most important building was in true Latvian style the studio – at first and then the Chapel – Episcopal, because the artists outgrew it the first year. Another building, the enclosure of the pavilion with a small kitchen added for the priests — Catholic retreats. Always decisions should we have a lake or a pool — the pool won and what a big pool – reinforced concrete – there to stay forever — it’s still there. Scrubbed down every Saturday and refilled. Another renovation was the sulphur bathrooms for the women over the dining room—Parthenia’s domain.

1945 and 1946 War years brought our baby sister Norma Latimer Watkins back to Allison’s while Tom was in the service in the Philippines with her two girls Norma and Mary Elizabeth.

John renovated for them a bedroom and sitting room upstairs. Norma was in charge of Allison’s and her third daughter Sydney was born on the 2nd of January 1946 – in Jackson and then back to the Wells for the winter. Allen, our man of all work looked after getting Norma to school by bus to Pickens and of course Mary Elizabeth tagged along about a block to the big road to catch the school bus. Allen built the fires, cooked the children’s breakfast and served it in the sitting room in the early morning light — practically black, and took Norma to the big road.

Allison’s had many firsts: First American Bridge League Tournament in Mississippi … First Art Colony in Mississippi… First Continuous Exhibition of Paintings with a Tea … This is a few of them. From Allison’s to La Font at Pascagoula where the Art tradition continues a fall Workshop every first Tuesday in November for five days. There is a continuous Exhibition of paintings.

Doug and his wife Bertha continue with the same fine cuisine with emphasis on fine seafood. Landscaping and flowers are important. Fresh flowers on the table—as at Allison’s. Art continues to be important. Nothing dies—realities live.

Bad-Mouthing Mississippi

Southerners share an acute awareness that most of our fellow countrymen view us with disdain. This knowledge of ill regard is something we learn from an early age, and the message is amplified and compounded by a steady stream of negativity from every imaginable source: books, movies, television and other media, not to mention personal experiences garnered by traveling outside our lands and meeting that contempt face-to-face.

As powerful as this imprint is, still it can come as a shock, particularly for a Mississippian, who even among their fellows from other Southern states are pissed upon as if from a great height, to find that a person you admire for talent, wisdom, and at least an ostensible generosity of mind can be vehemently bigoted towards a region and people never visited. Such was my reaction to Bill Bryson’s account of a visit to Mississippi in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which Bryson chronicles a 13,978 mile trip around the United States in the autumn of 1987 and spring 1988.

When I was a graduate student studying English as a language, Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) captivated me. Witty, informative and occasionally dazzlingly well-written,–he hangs 10 all through Middle English–Bryson came across as the bluff, jovial professor of the sort one should hope to have in a subject that can be stupefying.

Many years later, when I came across Bryson’s account of his journey through Mississippi in The Lost Continent, I was stunned to discover him, a native Iowan now living in Britain, as full of bile as most American writers who venture south and dismayed to find his account packed with the usual shopworn stereotypes, clichés, and overt contempt. Here’s some of what he wrote.

   Just south of Grand Junction, Tennessee, I passed over the state line into Mississippi. A sign beside the highway said, WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI. WE SHOOT TO KILL. It didn’t really. I just made that up. This was only the second time I had ever been to the Deep South and I entered it with a sense of foreboding. It is surely no coincidence that all those films you have ever seen about the South – Easy Rider, In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, Deliverance – depict Southerners as murderous, incestuous, shitty-shoed rednecks. It really is another country.

    I followed Highway 7 south towards Oxford. It took me along the western edge of the Holly Springs National Forest which seemed to be mostly swamp and scrub land. I was disappointed. I had half expected that as soon as I crossed into Mississippi there would be Spanish mosses (sic) hanging from the trees and women in billowy dresses twirling parasols and white-haired colonels with handlebar mustaches drinking mint juleps on the lawn while armies of slaves gathered the cotton and sang sweet hymns. But this landscape was just scrubby and hot and nondescript. Occasionally there would be a shack set up on bricks, with an old black man in a rocking chair on the porch, but precious little sign of life or movement elsewhere.

    At the town of Holly Springs stood a sign for Senatobia, and I got briefly excited. Senatobia! What a great name for a Mississippi town! All that the old South stood for seemed to be encapsulated in those five golden syllables. Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was sweaty and overweight and sat low in his seat. I assume he was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I could feel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin’?” This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?”
    “I said, how yew doin’?”
    “I’m fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.”
    “Y’on vacation?”
   “Yup”
   “Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?”
    I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m kind of slow, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
     “I say” – and he repeated it more carefully – “how doo yew lack Mississippi?”
It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it’s wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn’t been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I signed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.”
    I drove on to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as it’s known. The people named the town after Oxford in England in the hope that this would persuade the state to build the university there, and the state did. This tells you most of what you need to know about the workings of the Southern mind. Oxford appeared to be an agreeable town. It was built around a square, in the middle of which stood the Lafayette County Courthouse, with a tall clock tower and Doric columns, basking grandly in the Indian-summer Around the perimeter of the square were attractive stores and a tourist information office. I went into the tourist information office to get directions to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home.

   Behind the desk sat a large, exceptionally well-dressed black woman. This surprised me a little, this being Mississippi. She wore a dark two-piece suit, which must have been awfully warm in the Mississippi heat. I asked her the way to Rowan Oak. “You parked on the square?” she said. Actually she said, “You pocked on the skwaya?”
    “Yes.”
    “Okay, honey, you git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya. You goes out the other end, twoads the university, goes three blocks, turns rat at the traffic lats, goes down the hill and you there, un’stan?”
    “No.”
    She sighed and started again. “You git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya–”
    “What, I drive around the square?”
   “That’s rat, honey. You makes the skwaya.” She was talking to me the way I would talk to a French person. She gave me the rest of the instructions and I pretended to understand, though they meant nothing to me. All I kept thinking was what funny sounds they were to be emerging from such an elegant-looking woman. As I went out the door she called out, “Hit doan really matter anyhow cust hit be’s closed now.”  She really said hit; she really said be’s.
    I said, “Pardon?”
    “Hit be’s closed now. You kin look around the grounz if you woan, but you cain’t go insod.”
    I wint outsod thinking that Miss Hippy was goan be hard work.

There’s more; some worse, some better. Bryson visited Tupelo and Columbus as well, but in the final analysis. he left Mississippi with pronounced relief, and his impressions of the state were, I’m disappointed to say, rather much what we have come to expect of most people who visit with preconceived prejudices and with no desire to do anything more than capitalize upon the surety that their condescension would be well received by the world at large.

Flipping the Bird

The bill to designate the mockingbird the official state bird of Mississippi was approved unanimously by both houses of the Mississippi Legislature in 1944, which is probably the only time those assemblies totally agreed on anything. Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida followed suit, establishing the Northern mockingbird (fifteen species of the genus live outside Dixie) as the most popular state bird in the Union.

The mockingbird is a Southern icon, but I’d like to have an avian symbol for Mississippi that sets us apart from our Great Sister States. Let’s keep the mockingbird, but adopt another winged denizen of our borders to represent us. My nominee is the Mississippi kite, a bird so at home in the air it’s said that “Only two powers of nature can defeat the wings of a Mississippi kite. One is rain, the other darkness.” These graceful birds can be seen sailing above our woods in summer, tumbling in the air as they catch prey on the wing. A pair will usually nest in the same location for years.

Another unanimous vote on a new state bird is absurd; some fool’s going to suggest a cardinal, another a blue jay, and you can be damn sure some legislator from the Delta will throw a duck in just for the hell of it. The Mississippi legislature recently replaced two state symbols; let’s bring them together to give us a bird of our own.

The Celluloid Galleria

A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford settled into the laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater it will always be, 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 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.

Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theatre was located across a parking lot from the Gin, the first among many restaurants and bars 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, painted by a local academic artist. In time, many local artists would festoon the structure inside and out. The bathroom graffiti at the Hoka was as inspirational as it is legendary.

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.

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 projectors.

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. 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 art form of the 20th century, as well as a portal to other worlds.

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 swept up the rice. We also learned to ban potato flakes.

Ron showed a lot of great cult 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 before long, 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. Ron Shapiro brought film as art to Oxford.

Cheesecake at the Hoka

Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in Oxford in 1974. He showed much of what passed as “art cinema”, but included an eclectic blend of old “B” movies, and selections from cutting-edge favorites such as Russ Meyers and John Waters. Sometime around 1978, Ron went into partnership with Betty Blair, a beautiful lady from the Delta, and together they opened up the Moonlight Café in the theater. A dining area was constructed, the plumbing was re-done, kitchen equipment and a storage room were installed. The Moonlight served sandwiches, salads and desserts, and in a short time the Hoka became a popular nightspot in Oxford, a place to see and be seen.

One of the signature desserts was a New York-style cheesecake that came to the Moonlight via two sisters, Marla and Lee Ann Frear, who hailed from Delaware. Both Marla and Lee Ann were big, buxom blondes. I vividly remember seeing them at a Halloween party costumed as Siamese twins, resembling nothing less than a battleship in full steam as their huge boobs plowed a wake through the crowd. They got the recipe from their mother, who was a caterer in Dover, and sold the cakes to the Moonlight to abet their college allowances. After they graduated, they gave the recipe to Gene Duncan, who gave it to me some forty years ago. It’s a simple concoction, but you must take care to pack the crust evenly or it will singe on the outside and be soggy in the middle

Hoka Cheesecake

Filling: ¾ cup sugar, 3 large eggs, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 24 oz. cream cheese, room temperature, 1 stick melted butter. Beat eggs, add sugar and mix well at medium speed, then add cream cheese and melted butter.
Crust: 1 box Nabisco graham cracker crumbs, 1 ½ cup sugar, 1 ½ stick melted butter.
Topping: 1 pint sour cream, room temperature, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 4 tablespoons sugar.
Mix crust ingredients, pack in lightly oiled 9”x3” spring form pan. Mix filling ingredients well at medium speed for three minutes. Pour over crust, spread evenly and bake at 375 for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, spoon on topping, return to oven at 475 for 5 min. Chill before slicing and serving.

Jackson’s Culinary Canon

The culinary literature of any given city (or region) reflects the character of its peoples, and taken altogether, this selection, which I submit as the “best of the best”, shows Jackson as richly cultured, with an enduring commitment to the commonweal. Among its citizens have been talented cooks who were writers of surpassing ability. These books encompass an extraordinary amount of cultural history, contain the highest order of culinary exposition, and taken altogether could work as a syllabus for any tutorial on Southern cooking.

Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa
(Muscadine Press: 1981)

In 1981, proprietor Hosford Fontaine—doubtless at the urging of countless friends—published Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa. The book is a treasure-trove of history, with profiles of the people who kept the resort functioning as well as other unforgettable characters, musicians and artists such as Till Caldwell, Inez Wallace, Ted Faires, Marie Hull and others. Many of these people contributed to the illustrations, which are augmented by dozens of charming vintage photos including a poignant image of Hosford standing amid the charred ruins. Best of all, The Last Mississippi Spa also includes a sprawling section on recipes for almost anything to put on the table: hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, dressings, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables, breakfast and brunch dishes, desserts, candy and cookies, all “tried and true” from the La Font kitchens. The book includes a warm and heartfelt Forward by Charlotte Capers and a brief introduction by Eudora Welty.

The Jackson Cookbook
(Hederman Brothers: 1971)

This cookbook could well be held up as an archetype of a Southern ladies’ cookbook; it’s stiff with tradition and understated elegance. Indeed, in a note “About the Cover,” the editors explain that Artist Carl Davis translated Welty’s comments about “the era of the Madeira tea napkin,” into a work of art using an heirloom tea napkin “hand embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson,” with Jackson’s monogram “J”. This note follows a short essay by the Women’s Editor of The Clarion-Ledger, Mary Alice Bookheart, “The Aesthetics of Eating,” which states in part, “This is not necessarily a cookbook of old Jackson recipes. … What (the cookbook committee) has attempted to do in compiling this book is to achieve a happy blend of old and new …” This book also includes some restaurant favorites, such as the “Edwards House (King Edward Hotel) Chicken”. The recipes are simple and use familiar ingredients as well as commercial items, and provide recipes for any occasion, ranging across the menu. The Jackson Cookbook is a wonderful addition to any kitchen library, but what sets it apart, raising it to a level no other cookbook in Mississippi can hope to achieve, is the Forward, “The Flavor of Jackson,” a jewel of exposition by Welty.

 The Southern Hospitality Cookbook
Oxmoor House: 1976

Simply put, Winifred’s The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a groaning board of splendid recipes, but as a whole nothing less than an illuminating documentation of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied, the ingredients often expensive and times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, the most frequent critiques of the book involve how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her class and generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients. Many of the recipes are true heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard. She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors. The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”) and a preface by Eudora herself (“A Note on the Cook”).

Standing Room Only
Hederman Brothers: 1983

“With Narratives by Eudora Welty and Beth Henley,” announces the marquee on New Stage’s truly superb “Cookbook for Entertaining”. Henley’s short essay on theatre parties is quite fun, and Welty’s “A Note about New Stage” is the definitive article on this beloved Jackson institution. The posters and playbills, along with the accompanying texts, that separate the divisions are also marvelous diversions, but the true stars here are the recipes. This is hands-down my favorite Jackson cookbook because the recipes are sumptuous, clearly presented, and a lot of them are just damned fun. Most of them are written for more than four servings and are captioned with “can double”. Also included are the invaluable sections, “Buying Guide for 50 Guests” and “Setting a Bar for 50 for One Hour”. SRO throws in an herb and wine guide as curtain calls.

Southern Sideboards
Wimmer/JLJ: 1978

The most distinguished cookbook in this selection, and winner of the prestigious Southern Living Hall of Fame Award, Southern Sideboards is THE right cookbook for traditional Southern recipes before the “foodie revolution” of the 1980s. These recipes aren’t designed for health or with an eye to fussy ingredients, so if you’re the type of person who wouldn’t be caught dead in a checkout with a can of Cream of Celery soup, then it’s certainly not for you. But if you’re one of those hide-bound traditionalists who want to know EXACTLY how Granny made that Southern Cornbread DRESSING, then this is your book. Sure, the recipes are often complex and some do take a little time, but you know what? Time and preparation are keys to good cooking and good eating. The game recipes are truly superb, as are the desserts, particularly the cakes. Southern Sideboards is distinguished by a splendid, heartfelt essay by Mississippi native Wyatt Cooper, an author, screenwriter, and actor who is better known as the fourth husband of Vanderbilt heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and the father of journalist Anderson Cooper.

The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner
Three Rivers Press: 2003

Despite what you may think, I am not including Jill Conner Browne’s cookbook in this list because I’m afraid that if I didn’t, I’d in the very near future have a magenta sequined bootie up my patootie. No, I honestly think the Big-Ass Cookbook is absolutely fabulous. Not only does it have lots and lots of great—albeit indulgent—recipes, it also has reams of practical advice: “Hormones are serious juju, and if you don’t get them sorted out, you might find that you need money for things like lawyers and bail.” I think it’s Jill’s best book, though I must profess a weakness for cookbooks. Here you’ll find satire without (much) malice or rancor, some of the best writing—flat-out writing—to come out of Mississippi, and humor that’s deliberately  earthy without being crass or (too) coarse. Of course, I’ll never be deemed worthy to sew a single sequin on an SPQ outfit, but I adore them from afar.

Faulkner’s Walk on the Wild Side

In 1931, William Faulkner published his first collection of short stories, These 13, which in addition to some of his most acclaimed and frequently anthologized stories—“A Rose for Emily”, “That Evening Sun,” and “Dry September”—included “Divorce in Naples”, Faulkner’s most direct if not overt exploration of  homosexuality.

Faulkner had already broached the theme in the intimacy between Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate Shreve McCannon in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and Jenny and Patricia as well as the openly gay lesbian Eva Wiseman in Mosquitoes (1927). He’d renew and expand his depiction of Quentin and Shreve and introduce a parallel relationship with Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner employed the theme in diverse manners in later works, but “Divorce in Naples” stands as his most explicit work on homosexuality.

Simply put, the story depicts the relationship between two sailors, George (“Greek, big and black, a full head taller than Carl”) and the younger Carl (“with his round yellow head and his round eyes, looking like a sophisticated baby”).

‘THEY CAME INTO THE SHIP together at Galveston, George carrying a portable victrola and a small parcel wrapped in paper bearing the imprint of a well-known ten-cent store, and Carl carrying two bulging imitation leather bags that looked like they might weigh forty pounds apiece. George appropriated two berths, one above the other like a Pullman section, cursing Carl in a harsh, concatenant voice a little overburred with v’s and r’s and ordering him about like a nigger, while Carl stowed their effects away with the meticulousness of an old maid, producing from one of the bags a stack of freshly laundered drill serving jackets that must have numbered a dozen. For the next thirty-four days (he was the messboy) he wore a fresh one for each meal in the saloon, and there were always two or three recently washed ones drying under the poop awning. And for thirty-four evenings, after the galley was closed, we watched the two of them in pants and undershirts, dancing to the victrola on the after well deck above a hold full of Texas cotton and Georgia resin. They had only one record for the machine and it had a crack in it, and each time the needle clucked George would stamp on the deck. I don’t think that either one of them was aware that he did it.’

One night Carl disappears and George, frantic, fails to find him. When Carl returns after three days, he reveals that he has been with a woman, and George kicks him out of their berth only to discover later, after their reconciliation, that Carl was too naive to have sexual congress with the woman, and

“ …two weeks later we were watching him and George dancing again in their undershirts after supper on the after well deck while the victrola lifted its fatuous and reiterant ego against the waxing moon and the ship snored and hissed through the long seas off Hatteras.’

Most of Faulkner’s examinations of same-sex desire focus on men; Faulkner had close relations with many homosexual writers and artists, including his townsman and fellow writer Stark Young and his childhood friend Ben Wasson as well as William Alexander Percy and Lyle Saxon. It goes without saying that while living in New Orleans he doubtless knew many others.

The story draws most directly on Faulkner’s experiences with William Spratling, a down-on-his-knees New Orleans fairy, in sailing to Europe on the West Ivis beginning July 7, 1925 and to Genoa on August 2, where after landing they celebrated their arrival by going drinking with the ship’s officers. The drinking bout turned into a brawl with “pimps and prostitutes”, after which Spratling was arrested and thrown into an Italian prison where during the night he had a “homosexual encounter”. Rape is of course implied, but then again we don’t have any evidence that the encounter wasn’t consensual. The event in Genoa provided the kernel for the story, and Faulkner himself was heard to joke at one point that he was jealous of Spratling.

Faulkner’s representations of human sexuality are ambivalent and veiled. “Divorce in Naples” displays sexual activity blended with romantic idealism and sexual innocence if not confusion, but typically for Faulkner leaves the tension between them suspended.

Yam Not

Okay, let’s straighten this out once and for all. Those big orange roots you find in the grocery store are not yams. Got that? As a matter of fact, it’s a good bet that most of the people who just read that have never even seen a yam.

Sweet potatoes came to be called yams because they’re kind of/sort of similar, both starchy/sweet root vegetables, but they’re quite distinct; a sweet potato is far sweeter and much smoother than a yam. The most important distinction is that yams don’t grow in the South, but sweet potatoes do, in glorious profusion. Sweet potatoes have always been a staple of Southern tables as well as a reliable source of income. The sweet potato is the state vegetable of North Carolina, and the Sweet Potato Capitol of the World is Vardaman, Mississippi. (If tells you any different, they’re a double-dog liar who needs a thorough ass-kicking.

Still and all, you’re bound to find cans of yams in many local grocers, but due to USDA requirements, most inevitably you’ll find “sweet potatoes” somewhere on the label.

So there.