The answer isn’t easy; getting all the facts in one pile is hard enough. Then once you figure in the observer, perspective and perception, you might conclude the South is a fluid, protean phenomenon, a shattered chimerical idea or just a hook to hang a hat on, all of which indeed it is all at any given time.
Even we as Southerners, however much we profess to have an innate, intuitive conception of what the South is, cannot know it root and branch because our conceptions of it change, evolve, even as we think about it; such is the nature of intimate knowledge. The perplexion is compounded by those who theorize on the nature of the South, not only Cash, Woodward, Foote and their ilk, but those from outside the South who come to the region for the specific purpose of writing about it.
Joan Didion, a product of New Journalism, is best known for her introspective writings on culture and politics, though her most acclaimed works are deeply personal; The White Album (1979), including the title essay dealing with a nervous breakdown and The Year of Magical Thinking, (2005), written shortly after the deaths of her daughter and husband. It’s worth noting that her trip to the Gulf South was taken only two years after her critically acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a gritty, myth-busting account of California’s counter-culture during the 1960s, and that the notes eventually becoming South and West were recollected, (and presumably to some degree edited if not rewritten) and published only now, almost fifty years later.
Didion begins her excursion through Darkest Dixie in New Orleans with images of procreation, death and decay:
“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead. One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car.”
One might consider this an inauspicious beginning for a book about the Deep South, but then striking a gothic note isn’t out of order. Then her focus narrows:
“I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970. There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be; the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.”
Throughout the work, Didion interacts with locals, usually people of prominence, including Walker Percy and (surprisingly) Stan Torgerson, but not Eudora Welty, stating that she dared not visit Welty in Jackson because she was certain that so near an airport, she’d catch a flight to the west coast. To me it’s telling that she couldn’t find Faulkner’s grave in that cemetery in Oxford.
The summing-up for this work is her observation of an audience in Mississippi watching an American movie as if it were Czechoslovakian. This is literally the purest form of projection, for it is Didion who is watching a foreign film, driving through Dixie in a daze, and while we might find her unpassionate observations offensive, we should bear ear to them, if only to discover ourselves in other eyes.
I always thought it a very cool thing to be able to say that GlennRay Tutor, Glenn Ballard, and I took a writing workshop together in the summer of ’74. Indeed, so far as I know, it was the only writing class any of us ever took. There were other good students whose names I do not recall, but wish I could. Neither can I bring to mind the least remnant of what I learned in that class. The professor, however, was unforgettable.
He was a devilishly handsome man, funny and kind, and he seemed to know everything. Simply everything. He could summon a quote from the ether anytime he wanted. He read beautifully, both poetry and prose, and read as if the poet or writer were his best friend in all the world. He had written an actual novel (we didn’t know then about the ones he would always dismiss as “drugstore paperbacks”) published by an actual New York City house, and his short stories had appeared in actual magazines, and we boys looked on these accomplishments as commensurate with raising the dead. Nevertheless, he was humble in the presence of great writers, and treated even our sophomoric maunderings with delicacy and respect. More important, he practiced humility toward his own prodigious talent.
Our professor smoked a pipe, as all professors ought, and as most did in those vanished days. Over the years, I took every course he offered, and his routine never varied: he would arrive with his pipe and tobacco pouch and a thermos of coffee, greet everyone, open whatever book we were using, and commence to be brilliant. (He had a Nimrod Sportsman pipe lighter–the kind advertised in Field & Stream–and his old students will smile when I recall the image of that good man flicking his lighter and stoking his pipe and pouring a cup of coffee all at the same time.) He never used notes, and hardly ever wrote on the blackboard. Had there been Power Point then (God forbid!), he would have scorned it. Neither did he waste time with films or slides. He just talked, and read, and revealed the magical realm of literature to us.
Those who remember this excellent professor will be interested to know that, at long last, his life and contributions are contained in a biography: Living in Mississippi: The Life and Times of Evans Harrington (UP of Mississippi, 2017). Author and scholar Robert Hamblin knew Dr. Harrington as friend and colleague; he has drawn on that relationship, on a wide range of interviews, and on careful research to present as complete a portrait of the man as we are ever likely to have.
And what a man he was! Evans Harrington was born in Birmingham of parents who were conservative both in religion (his father, Silas, was a Baptist minister) and politics–which is to say that the elder Harringtons were Southerners of their time and generation. When Evans was three, the family moved to Mississippi, and there they remained. Young Evans grew up in the rural South of the ‘20s and ‘30s, a culture which shaped him in many ways. Harrington loved the Southern landscape; he was a skilled hunter and fisherman; he knew what it meant to work hard; he was schooled in the Bible and old-time religion; he was as mannerly and courtly and brave as any character in Swallow Barn. At the same time, he grew to manhood in a time when change was on the horizon. Like many thoughtful Southerners before him, Harrington was exposed to unexpected, often uncomfortable, insights when he left the South and joined the service in 1943. For the first time, he encountered young men from the North and West who owned different ways of thinking; when called upon to explain his region’s unique qualities, Harrington, like Quentin Compson at Harvard, discovered he could not defend many cultural elements he had taken for granted. In an interview, Harrington admitted that, by the time of his discharge in 1945, he was “already an integrationist and a defender of the blacks.”
Throughout his adult life, Evans Harrington was a champion of equal rights, not only for blacks, but for all persons protected by the United States Constitution–and this at a time when such notions might cost a Southern man his life. Nevertheless, he refused to follow many of his educated, like-minded contemporaries (including William Faulkner) in their exodus to more “enlightened” areas of the country. Hamblin takes his biography’s title from the essay “Living in Mississippi” (Yale Review, June, 1968), in which Harrington defines the extraordinary dilemma of one who insists on loving his native land in spite of itself. Harrington remained in the state he loved; throughout the tumultuous civil rights era, he fought, with ardor and passion, often at his own peril, and at considerable personal cost, for what he believed to be the only decent, humane, and just relationship among human beings.
Among the many virtues of Hamblin’s book is the decision to present different elements of his subject’s history–biographical, political, academic, and literary–as independent sections. A departure from traditional biography, Hamblin’s technique offers clarity and focus, though not at the expense of the narrative as a whole.
It well may be that Robert Hamblin’s outstanding work will find but a limited audience, since Evans Harrington’s is not exactly a household name, and it is unlikely Hamblin will make it one. This is a very great pity, for Dr. Harrington’s life would inspire anyone who values courage, honor, and the rare quality of thinking for oneself, especially when it challenges the entrenched world view of a conservative society. In any event, those lucky enough to have known Dr. Harrington will find this book a treasure indeed.
Having begun this review on a personal note, I will end it in the same fashion. I never saw eye-to-eye with our good professor on certain points of his philosophy. I continue to believe liberal thinkers of his era embraced an ideology that, while admirable, was wholly impractical. They were naïve in the sense that all are naïve who cannot imagine the unimaginable future, a fault shared by every person who ever lived. On the other hand, without idealists like Dr. Harrington, our flawed humanity would never improve, never move toward kindness and justice and mercy. We are intractable until we see our image in the mirror of history, held up to us by brave men like Dr. Harrington.
By the way, when we at last discovered the Doc had written novels under a pen name, we implored him to reveal it. Finally, one day, he did. “It’s Jacqueline Suzanne,” he said.
Thank you, Dr. Harrington. Well done, sir. May you rest in peace.
That Faulkner wrote about the Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated should come as no surprise, nor that his essay “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is not only about what happened on May 7, 1955, but a masterly examination of the Derby as a quintessential American event and of the sport of kings itself.
The assignment was his second from the fledgling Sports Illustrated (founded by Henry Luce the previous August), his first being an exercise in dissonant apposition. That January Faulkner attended his first hockey game, one between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and in “An Innocent at Rinkside” wrote: “It was filled with motion, speed. … discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”. The poetry of hockey eluded the Mississippian.
James Street, the Mississippi minister-turned-journalist-turned novelist, was given the original ’55 Derby assignment, but Street died the September before the race. Sports Illustrated offered Faulkner $2000 plus a week’s expenses, including a $100-a-day chauffeured limousine; the kicker was a $500 bonus if the piece turned out to be as exceptional as they hoped from the Southern Nobelist. No fool he, Faulkner accepted immediately and after a trip to New York in April and the first days of May, he left the city for Louisville, where his publisher Don Klopfer sent him a note to the Brown Hotel informing him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable. “It’s an easy 500 bucks for you,” Klopfer write, “and we’re all mighty pleased, although I don’t suppose you give a damn.” On the contrary, Faulkner, who considered A Fable his masterpiece, was quite pleased and those visiting the handsome, nattily-attired writer in his suite found him puffing on a briarwood pipe, smiling.
Far from rinkside in Madison Gardens, at Churchill Downs Faulkner was in his element; his father Murry had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, he enjoyed riding as well as fox hunting and he had a fine eye for horseflesh. In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Faulkner reflected, “It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh.” During his stay in Louisville Faulkner was accompanied by SI’s turf writer Whiney Tower, who was instructed “to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.” To ensure against that seemingly likely possibility, Faulkner was to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville for Tower to wire via Western Union to New York.
Tower, a legend in his own right and the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional”. “His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back,” Tower wrote, “and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington. At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm. On the way back to Louisville, Faulkner napped, but near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache. “He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”
As race day approached, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith. The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.
“Kentucky: May: Saturday” ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written in five parts to accentuate the build-up of tension and excitement that exploded in the two-minute race that had drawn over a hundred thousand people from all over the world, the essay was not so much about the race itself as a—somewhat rambling; it is Faulkner, after all—meditation on what the Derby means, a piece so subjective that Faulkner didn’t even mention how “Swaps”, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, had held the lead from the start and won despite a thrilling challenge from “Nashua”.
“THREE DAYS BEFORE”, framed the event in historical perspective: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too — the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival — Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.” He linked this past history with his own present: “And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song; no longer the dark and bloody ground of memory now, but already my old Kentucky: home.”
“TWO DAYS BEFORE”, he turned to the race: “Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.”
“ONE DAY BEFORE” looked back to former races: “It rained last night; the gray air is still moist and filled with a kind of luminousness, lambence, as if each droplet held in airy suspension still its molecule of light, so that the statue which dominated the scene at all times anyway now seems to hold dominion over the air itself like a dim sun, until, looming and gigantic over us, it looks like gold — the golden effigy of the golden horse, “Big Red” to the Negro groom who loved him and did not outlive him very long, Big Red’s effigy of course, looking out with the calm pride of the old manly warrior kings, over the land where his get still gambol as infants, until the Saturday afternoon moment when they too will wear the mat of roses in the flash and glare of magnesium; not just his own effigy, but symbol too of all the long recorded line from Aristides through the Whirlaways and Count Fleets and Gallant Foxes and Citations: epiphany and apotheosis of the horse.”
“THE DAY” began ruminating about the horse, which once moved man’s body and goods, but now moved only his money. Food-supplying animals would, he prophesized, eventually become obsolete, but not horses, since they provide mankind with “something deep and profound in his emotional nature and need, a sublimation, a transference: man with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal…”
“4:29 P.M.” is emotionally drained, an analytic response to spent anticipation: “We who watched have seen too much… we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with, what we have seen and experienced.” He focused on the dispersal of the crowds and the disgruntlement of the losing backers. “And so on. So it is not the Day after all, it is only the eighty-first one.”
Angelo Mistilis has without doubt cooked more onions than anyone in the state of Mississippi, onions that he slapped on that seasoned grill on College Hill Road in Lafayette County and served up to generations of Oxonians, Ole Miss students and other sorts of riff-raff on his legendary hamburger steaks. To have Angelo teach you how to cook an onion is on the level of having Yo-Yo Ma show you how to tune a bull fiddle; thank you Lisa for sharing.
I really wanted to like this book, I really did. I was hoping that Dees had matured since publishing Lies and Other Truths (Jefferson Press, Oxford; 2008) an ill-advised assortment of self-absorbed musings, and The Statue and the Fury (Nautilus Press, Oxford) does have an initial premise of objectivity, but this grounding proves to be nothing more than jumping-off point for another lengthy exercise in self-indulgence. The Statue and the Fury could well be described as a roman à clef with no need for a key, since the names come one after another rat-a-tat-tat like a perfunctory roll call of characters, encompassing everyone of note in Oxford during the late 1990s and many who are still there.
In reporting on the tempest in a teapot created over cutting a magnolia on the Oxford Square to make way for a statue, the only character that gets more play than Jim Dees is William Faulkner, said statue subject, who figures prominently on the cover in the company of Willie Nelson, James Meredith, and Myrlie Evers below a vermeil title in a clumsy Monty Python-esque montage. We shouldn’t find this depiction surprising, since Faulkner is Oxford’s most important asset aside from the University of Mississippi, and the others are of course Mississippi icons in their own right, even Willie. Dees goes so far as to share his thoughts on Faulkner’s works in a Catherine’s wheel of maritime metaphors, including, “I would direct first-time readers to the novellas in Go Down, Moses or the Snopes trilogy, or, to dip your toe gently in the Faulkner sea, page-turners like Intruder in the Dust or As I Lay Dying.” Not, perhaps, the most perceptive advice, but then Dees with uncharacteristic modesty admits that he is “not any kind of Faulkner know-it-all”. (Indeed.)
Dees can be engaging on air as well as in person (provided you’re not on the wrong side of his toxic wit), but while his writing displays a formidable command of the first person singular, its sardonic tone is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, even when describing events fraught with high comedy such as Pizza Bob on the witness stand. In short, the entire work concerns nothing more than a “You had to be there” sort of situation in a feeble attempt at gonzo journalism and the title is either an ill-advised tongue-in-cheek pun or a painfully fumbled riff on Faulkner (six of one, half a dozen of the other). Dees’ Lies and Other Truths as well as They Write Among Us (Jefferson Press, Oxford; 2003) to which he wrote the introduction, both sold out, and it’s certainly likely that unless an unrealistic number of copies were printed The Statue and the Fury will as well, particularly if everyone mentioned buys a copy.
By dint of his gig as host of “Thacker Mountain Radio”, which no less than Dees himself refers to as the “Grand Ole Opry of literature”, Dees has become a media figure. Given his unremarkable publishing history, what we’re left with in The Statue and the Fury is an example of marketing based on the appeal of personality; in a sense, buying Dees’ book is somewhat the Mississippi equivalent of buying that collection of Kim Kardashian’s selfies. If you are a fan of Jim Dees, you will certainly find this book worth every penny, and if you lived in Oxford during the ‘Nineties, even if you’re not mentioned, you might buy it, too, but sooner or later it’s bound to be available at your local library.
This is an excerpt from Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, written by his step-son Malcolm Franklin and published in an exclusive edition by The Society for the Study of Traditional Culture in 1977. Franklin is a capable story-teller himself.
One of the most frequent questions that people ask me about Faulkner is about his writing routine and writing habits. Pappy really had no set routine. He worked in an apparently erratic manner. I do know one very important fact. He never carried a notebook or made any notes. He did not at any time carry a pencil or paper. He seemed to work largely from memory and observation.
He had a small portable typewriter that was presented to him by an old sailing friend, Jim Devine, whom he had known in New York in the late twenties. To this very day it remains in what is now known as Pappy’s Office at Rowan Oak. I always associate it with Pappy’s noisy periods, the ones that let us all know Pappy was at work. During what we referred to as his silent days, he used pen and ink. On such days you could not be sure whether he was writing or not. It was all very quiet. No telephone, no radio and no doorbell! These were forbidden items. All you could hear were the sounds from the woods beyond the formal gardens and the barnyard. The dogs would bark. A rooster who had lost the time of day might unexpectedly crow. Cows would occasionally let out a low moo reminding those in charge that milking time was near. Otherwise, only silence; for we were too far from the road and out of the way for the sounds of traffic to interfere.
Then there would be the times I would see Pappy walking along the driveway, perhaps headed for a walk down Old Taylor Road, in the direction of Thacker’s Mountain, some six miles away. It was not out of the ordinary for Pappy to cover the distance between Thacker’s Mountain and back in one afternoon. Quite often I would go along, riding the small quarter horse that Pappy had given me, Dan Patch. Pappy, of course, walked through the woods, and by the time I reached Thacker’s Mountain by the road, there would be Pappy sitting on top of one of the large boulders, perfectly still, not saying a word. I would ask, “Pappy, would you like to ride Dan Patch back and let me walk?” “No,” he would always answer, preferring to go through the woods rather than by the road. Upon returning to Rowan Oak he would not say a word. Instead he would go straight to the library, or to his bedroom, where he had a small writing table. And then you would know he was writing. Even in the silence.
Another trait of his which took him outdoors but was still connected with his writing was squirrel hunting. Every fall, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and often on weekday afternoons, too, Pappy and I would hunt squirrels—always at least one mile from Rowan Oak. The squirrel we were after in particular was the fox squirrel. Unlike the ordinary gray squirrel, who carelessly slits about, the fox squirrel demands great patience from the hunter, for he will sit perched motionless on a limb for long intervals at a time. The hunter must outsit the fox squirrel. If he waits long enough, in absolute silence, the squirrel will show himself in a vulnerable position. It was during these long periods of utter silence that I believe Pappy did a great deal of his thinking about the plots and characters he was writing about. He never said anything about it. However, many times when we arrived back at Rowan Oak he would say to me, “Buddy, would you dress out my squirrels? Or have Broadus dress them out for me?” I would reply, “Certainly, Pappy,” and then he would disappear, and I would hear the typewriter going for the rest of the morning. Other times he would come on back and dress out the squirrels with me.
We would never have more than two or three each at the most. Pappy brought me up never to kill more than we would need. Further, to make our stay in the woods longer and more of a sport, Pappy and I had a pact where we would only shoot for the head. We kept an old tin tobacco box with a slit in the top. Either of us who hit a squirrel anywhere but the head had to put a quarter in the tobacco box. When it was full, we bought a bottle of bourbon with it. Preferably Jack Daniel’s. Despite the fact that there have been many stories told about Faulkner’s drinking habits, including the statement, in many cases, that he was an alcoholic, he was not. It is a fact that he was a hard drinker. But only on occasion. And during a period of twenty-five or more years of close association, I never observed Faulkner’s drinking heavily while he was actively writing.
Faulkner gave a well-deserved reply to columnist Betty Beale of The Washington Star, whose society gossip column was widely read. She asked for the largest number of words he had penned on one day. His answer, printed in the June 14, 1954 column, clearly showed his attitude when he was asked a stupid question He gave an absurd answer: That he had climbed to the crib of the barn one morning with his paper, pencil and a quart of whiskey, and pulled the ladder up behind him; when daylight began to fail, he realized he had torn off five thousand words. In our barn at Rowan Oak there was no crib overhead—only a hay loft with no retractable ladder.
When he had completed a particularly long and involved piece of writing he would take a Sabbatical, indulging heavily in his favorite bourbon. Perhaps it might last a month or six weeks. Quite often the last week of his binge I would spend driving him around Lafayette, Marshall, Yalobusha and Panola Counties. In the summertime we would drive in my jeep. In the wintertime the excursions would take place in a closed car. He would sit there in the front seat, viewing the countryside. But sometimes he would carry on a very animated conversation with me in which he showed his love for and knowledge of that section of North Mississippi. He would point out places he had drawn on for certain incidents in his books or stories. Thus, I know exactly the location of As I Lay Dying, which is southeast of Oxford on the south side of the Yocona River. The location of one of his best stories, “The Hound”, is northeast of Oxford in the Tallahatchie River bottom, in a locality known as Riverside. On one long drive we made together in my jeep, he said, “This is where ‘The Bear’ took place.” We were passing through the old Stone place, between the Sunflower and Tallahatchie Rivers, some seventeen miles southwest of the old river town known as Panola, situated a few miles north of Batesville in Panola County. It was in the late fall, I believe, and we had been hunting at Mr. Bob Carrier’s plantation, where Pappy took Clark Gable to hunt once in the late 1930s.
On our return trip to Rowan Oak that evening, we travelled along an old, dusty road. Cotton stood on either side of the road, but much shorter and scrawnier than that we had passed earlier, around Batesville and Clarksdale in the Delta country. Pappy had noted there that some of the cotton had been picked by hand, some by machine—this was one of the earliest occasions, if not the earliest, that we had seen machine-picked cotton fields. Now from the road we could glimpse the tops of the trees in the river bottom beyond the fields—just a faint outline against the fast fading evening. From Pappy’s silence I realized, as we had rolled along this country road, that he was headed towards his typewriter again, and that soon I would be hearing once more the tap-tap sounds that so often penetrated the quiet darkness of Rowan Oak at odd hours during the night.
Homemade soups should grace our tables more often; they’ve fed body and soul long before canning came along, and a good soup made with stout stock and proper care is the measure of a good cook. One soup you’ll never find in a can is gazpacho, which rated an entire chapter (“Beautiful Soup”) in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, and became a culinary craze sometime in the late 1970s. Gazpacho is a king of cold soups, an easily-made, refreshing and somewhat novel way to serve fresh summer vegetables. Historical recipes of this dish always include bread as one of the basic ingredients, usually melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into something resembling a paste. While my recipe does not include bread at that juncture (I simply don’t like the texture), take it from someone who crumbles cold cornbread over a table bowl, bread is a great addition, and any well-textured bread will do.
This recipe is from my halcyon days in Oxford, where I was desultorily studying for a degree, diligently exploring my capacities for vice and desolately working in a string of eateries, among them The Bean Blossom Bistro, the first health-food restaurant in Oxford. It was located on Jackson Avenue across from the old telephone exchange. The Good Food Store, Oxford’s first health-food store—then in its second incarnation—was on the corner next door. Carol Davis opened the Bean Blossom in 1978. We had worked together at the old Moonlight Café, which Betty Blair had opened up in the Hoka a couple of years earlier. Carol and I became fast friends during that time, and when she opened up her own place, she brought me with her. We were very young, and though I like to think that Oxford in those days was an intoxicating environment, perhaps youth itself was our wine.
The Bean Blossom, like so many small restaurants, was founded more on good intentions than experience. I don’t think we ever seated more than fifty people at one time, and usually far, far less. The kitchen could barely hold more than three people. Our menu changed daily, though we could always whip up a tofu burger, or a veggie stir-fry or a great salad any time you wanted it. Carol introduced me to a lot of new foods, including adzuki beans, which I cook like cowpeas, and tofu, which I of course deep-fry. She also brought gazpacho into my world, and for that I am evermore grateful. I remember dipping the soup from a bucket in the bottom of our double-door refrigerator, a sheen of oil glistening atop the mixture. We served it with a variety of breads, and each bowl I eat now is a serving of savory nostalgia. Like memories themselves, this soup improves with age, but sours easily if mishandled.
Bean Blossom Gazpacho
Take two or three cloves of garlic, mince very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. If you want to try adding bread, now is the time, but I can’t make a recommendation as to what kind. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet pepper if you like, though be careful, since the pepper can overpower the other vegetables; a sweet yellow banana pepper works well. If you want to add a hot pepper such as a jalapeno, fine, but I don’t recommend heat; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing rather than pungent. Likewise, starchy vegetables such as fresh corn or peas seem out-of-place to me as well, though there are countless variations. Add another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of fresh basil, a heaping tablespoon of freshly-chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a bit more olive oil, perhaps a tablespoon. You might want to add some liquid, in which case I recommend a vegetable juice such as V8; tomato juice is too thick. Let this mixture sit for a couple of hours in the refrigerator in a sealed non-metallic container overnight. An hour before serving, add more juice if needed, a little fresh chopped parsley, adjust the salt and pepper and return to the refrigerator. Serve in chilled bowls (freshly chopped chives are a nice touch) with good crusty bread.
One of life’s great lessons you should learn is that people will save all sorts of things and run up on such ephemera later. If you’re lucky enough they’re of the more innocuous sort, such as this recipe that my darling friend Connie ran up on the other day. Inebriation is a great incentive when it comes to bravado, and as a committed, generous ne’er-do-well, I’m in the habit of providing my friends (who are more often than not partners in crime) with the questionable blessings of my culinary genius. After a bit of mutual deliberation, we’ve concluded that it was scribbled at Ireland’s in Oxford on some sunny fall afternoon when we both should have been at our desks at Ole Miss.
At first, I was trying to buy Walker’s Drive-In; I really wanted that place badly. I’d become such a fixture in there, I could feel my personality taking over, and it seemed only natural to get it, but the deal didn’t work out, so I started looking around for a place to put Sartin’s, or rather Sartain’s, since my last name is French, and I wanted to get into classic French cuisine. I went to Blockbusters in Castlewoods to drop off a movie, and I saw the Little Caesars next door was for sale. I just looked at it and though I could do my own pizza place. So I called the guy, Johnny Solomon, who owned all the Little Caesars and Popeyes in the area. He said he wanted $50,000 for the place, I offered $30,000, he came back with $35,000, and that was it. I started with $35,000. My dad loaned me the money out of his house equity. This was 2000. We opened February 7, 2001.
I decided I was going to open a pizza place, and when I realized I could do that, what with the casualness of the atmosphere, I realized I could simply be who I wanted to be and not worry about cutting my hair or what clothes I wear and putting off the customers. I decided I would make the theme of the place the music of the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the blues, the jam scene of the Sixties and Seventies because I had to be in there a hundred hours a week and why not enjoy myself while I’m there, hang up the pictures I like on the wall, almost make it like my college dorm room. It was almost accidental, how it all came together. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was 30 years old. I had tried the insurance business; my dad and his brothers were very successful in it, and somehow that’s what I figured I’d always end up doing, but I just didn’t like it. It’s not that it’s a bad business, it just wasn’t for me. I was an artist; I needed to write, paint, sing, play, cook, and that’s what I needed to do to be happy. My Dad got behind me, and I’ll never forget that. That was a big deal, it meant a lot to me. He had the money to get me started at the time. He wasn’t wealthy when he was growing up and had to work to earn everything he got, all the brothers did, so he wasn’t going to just lay it out there for me. But this seemed like a safe thing; if it failed, it would sting to lose $35,000, but not change his life.
And it went off like a rocket. I think people wanted something real. Also, there wasn’t another gourmet pizza shop in Jackson at the time. I don’t think at all. We made everything from scratch, had some great music playing. It helped that we were next door to a Blockbusters at the time, which was before Netflix and all that. I had two guys in the kitchen, and I took some of the recipes that I knew from Walker’s, like the crawfish bisque and a bread pudding, you know the bread pudding that Miss Hazel baked and I would watch her. I took a little bit of something from everywhere I worked, brought it to the table and went to my guys and said, “Alright, let’s do this.” The recipes have changed up since then. The pizza dough now is nothing like it was back then. Now it’s a 300-year old French artisan recipe. We used everybody who was there and pulled upon their knowledge and experiments. Over the years I changed things to make them better, particularly the pizza crust, which I wasn’t happy with in the beginning. We sold a lot of pizzas and people loved it, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. I think in retrospect it was really the ovens, not the recipes, so now that’s why I have brick ovens in every location. I changed up the recipe and moved forward.
We moved into Hal & Mal’s in ’02. Malcolm would come into Soulshine at Castlewoods for some reason, and you didn’t see him that often outside the city limits. We started talking, and I kept thinking about it because I often hung out at Hal& Mal’s, thinking there was room there for a Soulshine. They weren’t using that back room all the time, and so I said, “Hey, man, we’ll open up a Soulshine at Hal & Mal’s. He loved the idea. Hal and Charly didn’t like the idea, they didn’t have anything against us, they just saw trouble coming, and they were right. My first idea was to pay rent and have the bar in there, but you can’t buy two liquor licenses under one roof, so I said how about I don’t pay any rent, you sell the liquor, and I’ll keep a crowd in this room for you. I’ll make it worth it to you just for me to be here and you can sell all the alcohol you want based on my customers. And that was okay, but it still wasn’t worth it for both parties.It didn’t make sense. Then there was a lot of partying going on, and that’s really what made it fail. I learned a lot of lessons. I pulled out of there after being mugged for a third time in Jackson. My car was broken into, I was losing money and on top of that, I just wasn’t sure what I was doing and everybody was partying. There were other factors, too, but it might have worked if I’d known what I was doing, but if I’d known what I was doing, I’d never have gone there to begin with, nothing against Hal & Mal’s.
Anyway, I decided to go out to Highland Colony Parkway because I could see it all going there. I could see the future. We were the first restaurant out there. I signed a lease in ’04, we opened in ‘06. It took a year and a half. I just knew that’s where the white-collar world was headed, you could see it happening. There was nothing there, just this one little center that I’m in which is a big development now. But I could just see it coming. I believe in the township; I thought it would be cool to live there, like being in Belhaven in the Fifties. I could walk to the grocery store and this and that. So I got there, and it was too soon. I lost my ass for a little while. Once again, I really didn’t know what I was doing, I just had a great idea and I could talk to people and put out good food, make sure the place was clean, but when the business shuts down, when you’re through serving people, when all the food it put up, there’s still a lot of work to do, in the office, at the bank, with your attorneys, whoever it is, and I didn’t know anything about it. And what’s maybe even worse, I didn’t want to know anything about it. I just wasn’t interested in it.
Really, I’m just a glorified bartender at forty-six, and that’s alright with me. I’m not special; I just feel like I had a dream, and I was willing to lay it all on the line to either lose it or end up ultimately happy. I was willing to lose everything because I was literally just miserable. As an artist, you know that if you don’t create, you’re miserable. I had to create in some shape or form. A couple of years into that store, we just weren’t where we needed to be. That area still hadn’t developed yet. We got there too soon. So that’s when I went to Porter & Malouf and asked them to be my partners, to back me and help me with the business end. I’d been going out to Tim Porter’s house cooking pizzas in a brick oven at parties, so I went to them and said, “I need help.” They love me and they love the place, and they decided to do it. When I realized how backed up I was, it turned out to be a substantial investment, which surprised both me and them, but they were in. They stepped up to the table, and we became partners. That was 2008, and we’ve been together ever since.
Once we got some organization, the business really took off; we caught up on taxes and bills that had me behind the eight ball. The story was that I moved the Hal & Mal’s location to Highland Parkway, which was the way I spun it to the press, but that was bullshit because I was just a failure there. I shut it down, but I knew what I was going to do in Ridgeland, so I spun it off to the public as “We just had to get out of Jackson.” We eventually took off in Ridgeland, and it’s been great ever since. We moved from Castlewoods to Old Fanin, then we moved out Lakeland Drive again, now we’re out there in a big place right on Lakeland Drive. It’s done really well, and I’m really pleased with it. Those people out in the Reservoir community have been eating Soulshine pizza for fifteen years. They’ve been really good to me. I grew up out there.
When I first opened the original location in Castlewoods, it was just strictly a to-go Little Caesars spot. My mother, my sisters and I went in and painted and made it cool. I put the stereo in, took all the Little Caesar’s stuff down, played music over the speakers in the kitchen and then I decided to put in a dining area. People kept saying that they needed a place to sit and the bay next door in the center where we opened was available, so I got it, put tables in there, built a little makeshift bar, put in a few TVs, and I’d actually bartend and wait on every table myself. And everybody who came in, most of them I knew, had known them for years and years, and if I didn’t know them, I got to know them really fast. It was a magical time. I was doing what I believed in and that was really all that mattered. The people liked the food, they liked the music; they liked the way they got treated. It was all about service, and it was all about art, expression, and I didn’t think about much else. I still don’t think about much else. That’s why I have partners. You have to worry about it, you have to get involved, and they push me to get more involved, but it’s hard to get anyone who’s forty-six years old, ADD, an artist a musician, writer and songwriter to sit down at a computer and go through a P&L. It’s hard for me to do because I don’t have a natural interest in it; I just make sure it gets done.
Why Oxford? There are a lot of reasons and one of the reasons is you have to get your partners to buy into it, but my partners are Ole Miss guys, and I knew they’d like it. Everybody wants to do something in Oxford, but what most people don’t realize is that Oxford really isn’t Oxford unless a ball game is going on, at least when it comes to retail. Everybody’s there for whatever big occasion is going on, but on a Tuesday in July, what are you going to do? It’s better now that people are moving there to retire. This coming April we’ll have been there for four years. The anniversary is April 20th (4/20). I opened it up on that date on purpose. We didn’t have our kitchen quite ready, but I opened up and served hot dogs that night so people would come in and drink and our anniversary would be 4/20. That makes it really easy for me to remember, because I never remember dates, and the number spans the culture of Soulshine. But the Oxford location has been fabulous, has kicked butt. When we cleaned up the floor of that location, stripped off the years of filth that had built up, we discovered that the site was once the location of one of the first Kroger’s in the state. It took my breath away. I’ll never forget looking at that and thinking wow this is history here. I’m a history major, and any time I can put in a Soulshine, and I only have four, I strive to keep that historical significance if possible, that feeling of realness, I don’t want them all to be alike. I’m always torn over how many I’m going to have and keeping it real, not being a sell-out.
The music is still relevant, and there’s still good music that comes out. You’re always going to have people listen to that kind of music; it might not be the masses, but the music is still there. The music is timeless. I didn’t call it “artisan pizza” back then; I didn’t call it anything. It was just Soulshine, and it still is. I don’t like to call it anything else. It’s always going to be Soulshine pizza, and now we’re making the switch to stone-baked. As I’ve gotten older, I’m not Mr. Detail still, but I’m also striving to get better. To be up where we need to be, I felt like we needed to take the cooking method to another level, to another tier, and that’s what we’re doing this year with the ovens to match everything else, which seemed to be so perfect. And I felt like you look on the internet now and you see brick-fired, coal-fired, wood-fired and felt like we needed to do that. And we have; we have a brick oven in Oxford and Nashville, and we just installed one in Flowood last week. All I have to do now is to install one in the Ridgeland store, and it will take a couple of weeks before we do that. I feel like that gives me the confidence to move to another fifteen years and look up when I’m sixty-one and say, “Yeah, okay. What’s next?”
If I had to look back on life, the last fifteen years of my life and the hardships I’ve gone through, from divorce to being broke, broke, broke, somehow I dug in and made it happen Soulshine has meant so much to me. It wasn’t just a restaurant that I opened up that could fail or be successful. It’s my life on the walls. Everything means something to me, the customers will always mean something to me, the music, everything. It meant more to me than money or my perceived success. But ultimately, in the end, taking care of the people and what I believe in paid off for me down the road. I consider myself a success now. I still think I’ve got a lot of room to get better, and I think that’s what drives me a lot, too, that I’m never satisfied; not with me, or the business or whatever. I’m satisfied that I’m living the life I’ve always wanted to live in certain ways, but I’m competitive. I’ve always been athletic, and I was out there playing tennis until I was forty and wanting to win.
So I think my competitive nature pushes me. I wasn’t going down, and I wasn’t going to let anybody take me down. I also felt like I owed it to the people not to give up; the people who came in there, the people who supported me and the people who worked for me, who had jobs. There were many times when I could have come in on a Monday and said to hell with it, it’s not worth it anymore. That happens all the time in the restaurant business, people just give up. But I’ve never let it go, and I still won’t. It’s me not letting go of myself, which is a big part of my identity and who I am. Sometimes people say your job should not be who you are or whatever, but I turned my job into who I was. I sell myself. When you open up a restaurant, people are going to come see you because you are who you are and it’s about you, but after they’ve eaten there enough times, maybe had a bad meal or two, and you’re having trouble, they just quit coming. They’ll be there to hug you when you close, but the food has to be good, too. And it has been. I’ve never been quite satisfied with it, but I doubt if I ever will be.
I decided to open a Soulshine in Nashville because my oldest daughter lives there, and I knew after being remarried and having two more daughters, I wanted them to be raised together. So we moved there after we opened in 2011, in Midtown near Vanderbilt. It’s a killer place; we have a rooftop patio with a stage up there. The Who’s Who list of legendary musicians and current stars who sit in there with our Soulshine Family Band is very deep. Once I was singing, and I look up and there’s Steve Tyler, for instance. Another time I’m standing in there around Halloween. I see this cat and I’m thinking, “Is that Billy Gibbons or is this dude in costume?” Well, it was him. This stuff happens all the time. I’m floored all the time by who walks in and tells me, “This place is cool, man, Nashville needed something real.” Maybe that’s what I want to have on my tombstone:
The Snapper en Mornay was one of the most popular dishes at the Warehouse in Oxford because it was distinguished by a great home-made sauce. Jean Tatum Thomas once told me that if I were to put our Mornay on a Turkish towel she’d eat it, and don’t put it past me to try her one day. On the menus, it was billed as “Red Snapper en Mornay”, a distinctly Gulf of Mexico recipe. Our snapper came from Tarpon Springs, Florida, the home of many good Greek fishermen, but the sauce was our own.
When I came on to the Warehouse, James Ruffin made the Mornay, and because it was such a big seller, he was reluctant to teach me how to make it. For him, knowing how to make the Mornay represented job security. Now, there was no way that the owners were going to fire James; he worked hard, he’d been cooking there since they were waiters and everyone had a great deal of respect for him even though he took every opportunity to scare the living hell out of people every chance he got. Still James did not like the idea that they brought this young white guy (me) into the kitchen to help. It took months of working side-by-side with him before he let me even watch him make the sauce. I didn’t say a word, I just watched him and every now and then he’d tell me to go get something from the cooler or off the shelf. Then one day he said he was damned tired of having to make it all the time and told me to do it, he’d show me how. It was a watershed moment for me. After that, of course, we’d switch out and make it when either of us had the time and it was no longer a big deal.
Make a thick Béchamel with sherry, roughly a cup and a half of sauce for each eight ounces of fish, and season with a little salt and white pepper. If snapper is unavailable, use flounder, tilapia or ocean perch. Add grated Swiss or Provolone cheese, chopped green onions, picked lump crabmeat and a splash of sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”) then chill; skin fillets if needed, score lightly on both sides and place on a shallow lightly buttered oven dish. Spoon the cooled sauce over the fillets and bake at a very high heat until sauce is bubbling and fish flakes easily in its thickest part. Serve with a dusting of paprika, a sprinkling of sliced almonds, lemon garnish, fresh bread and a wine of your choosing.