Willie’s Liver

Willie Morris is one of Mississippi’s most beloved authors, particularly for My Dog Skip (1995), perhaps less fondly remembered for North Toward Home (1967), which at the time of its release was hailed by the Sunday (London) Times as “the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain”, and by William Styron (who was indebted to Willie for publishing his work during his brief tenure as editor of Harper’s). Then there’s The Courting of Marcus Depree (1983), which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt writing for The New York Times, states that, “Instead of catching a story by the tail, Willie Morris staggers around, lunging after whatever happens to catch his eye.”

Morris’ early success as editor of Harper’s led to early failure. After his summary dismissal by John Cowles, Jr., the scion of the conservative family that owned Harper’s over a dispute about the publisher meddling in editorial operations in 1971, Willie hit the skids. He bummed around Long Island for a while, soaking up booze with the likes of Craig Claiborne (who he recklessly advised to write a memoir, A Feast Made for Laughter). He then he came home to Mississippi, to Oxford, where he quickly became the central figure of a dissolute group of rakes and hangers-on who trolled the bars in varying degrees of pixilation and retired to his home at closing time for late-night revels.

At that time, I was working at The Warehouse, a restaurant in Oxford that saw its heyday in the early 80s, where James Ruffin was the head cook. Garrulous and scrappy, James scared the hell out of me when I came to work there as his right-hand-man. James was blind in one eye, as I am, so I figured between us we would get along like those old women from myth who shared a single eye. And we did, working together in a cramped, noisy, hot kitchen. We came to know and trust each other well. The last time I saw him was the day after the Warehouse burned in the wee hours of February 15, 1986. When he died many years later, our old boss Frank Odom let me know, and I was saddened; he was a good man.

The Warehouse enjoyed an upscale reputation and business was good. Now, after-hour diners are always an irritant to restaurant staff, but they hold big appeal for management who enjoy enabling significant people to entertain themselves and their significant friends after the riff-raff have gone and a strategic table can be commanded. Willie Morris always came in at closing time with a number of his adherents to occupy the big round table in the southwest corner of the floor, a choice spot far enough away from the noisy bar so that Willie could hold court without distraction. The management always alerted us that they were coming, which gave me and James ample time to halt our closing procedures and grumble until the table had been seated and lubricated with ample rounds. Almost invariably, Willie ordered the calf’s liver, which came to us pre-sliced and individually quick-frozen. A serving consisted of two 4-oz. slices of liver (dusted with seasoned flour and cooked on a well-oiled griddle) served with potatoes and a small salad. At $9.95, it was our cheapest entrée.

Cooked properly, a seared slice of liver is a wonderful thing. But it takes a little consideration, and by 11 p.m., James and I were on our last legs of the day. His wife had been waiting for him in the parking lot for an hour (he couldn’t drive at night), and I had less than 30 minutes to have a beer with my crowd before the Rose shut down. So when it came time to prepare Willie’s liver, James put a griddle iron on it and let it cook while we mopped the floor. The end result was leather. Morris–besotted–never  complained. I could have offered to do it myself in a sauté pan to ensure that it would be better, but I was tired as well and much more of a Hannah fan anyway.

This complaint against Morris can easily be dismissed as carping of the pettiest sort, but one day I was in the Gin, a landmark Oxford restaurant and watering-hole with a small group. At the bar, in his usual corner on the south end, sat Doxie Kent Williford, one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever known and one of the very few openly gay men in Oxford at the time. You rarely heard Doxie say an unkind word about anyone (including Willie Morris), and he was regarded with affection not only by the staff in the Gin, but by many Oxford residents and students.

I remember it was a late afternoon, and Willie came through the swinging doors with his entourage. They settled in at a large table in the center of the floor and not a half-hour had passed when Willie, in a very loud voice, said, “Look at that faggot at the end of the bar!” Then he snickered. The room fell silent. Doxie put his head in his hands, asked for his check and left. Willie laughed more at that and resumed telling whatever impressive lie he had launched upon earlier. We were all in shock, and I tried to follow Doxie out to say something, but he left in a hurry. He was back the next day, but refused to talk about it. I let it go for then, but after forty years, Willie’s gross incivility and utter lack of regard for those considered unworthy of his company remains a defining moment for me of the corrupt, dissolute character of Mississippi’s beloved author.

Season liver with salt and pepper, sear in light oil, turning once until just done and set aside; working quickly, add more oil, increase heat, add clove of crushed garlic and a half an onion, sliced into slivers or rings. This dish goes well with spicy stewed tomatoes.

 

 

 

The Tao of Gumbo

Willie Wallace has been around Oxford for a long, long time. He has owned and operated Local Color all that while, and Willie’s endurance should make him a model for anyone else opening an alternative-style business. Willie is a jovial man with the attributes of Jove himself: strength, intelligence, and an overwhelmingly benign presence.

It was Willie who started me out on the gumbo thing. Willie is from somewhere down on the Coast, where of course he grew up eating gumbo, whereas in north Mississippi the only gumbo I’d had was out of a red-and-white can and was about as exotic as escargot. Willie was a big supporter of the Bean Blossom Bistro and he spent a lot of time there helping out. I remember vividly the day when Willie was hunkered down in a corner peeling potatoes, and Carol and I were talking about soups. Well, I think I was the one to mention a gumbo, and I started talking about how I’d make it and Willie looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “So how did you say you did your roux?” Well, I think I tried to bluff my way through not knowing what a roux was for all of ten seconds before Carol and Willie both just started laughing, and I finally just had to admit I didn’t know what the hell a roux was, so they told me, and out of this embarrassing incident came a determination to learn how to make a distinguished gumbo. I think I’ve succeeded, too. Thanks, Willie.

Like a lot of other folks, I’m really serious about my gumbo. A good gumbo takes time to prepare, and it also takes some presence of mind. The roux itself takes a considerable amount of attention and some practice despite aversions you may have heard to the contrary. A roux is a mixture of butter or some other fatty substance and flour cooked together for varying amounts of time, depending upon its final use. There are three types of roux: a brown roux, a blond roux, and a white roux. Each is used as a thickening ingredient in sauces, brown roux in brown sauces, blond roux for a host of other uses, and white roux for white sauce such as Béchamel or a Velouté.

Now, these are the classical precepts for a roux, and when the French settled Louisiana in the early 18th century, the cooks they brought with them followed these rules in their kitchens. But somewhere along the way the rouxs used in Louisiana came to be cooked far longer than the Continental kinds. Some authorities believe this came about because of the dalliances of Creole apprentices in the early restaurants of New Orleans, but however it came about, the brown roux of classical French cuisine, described as being a “good light brown color,” ended up being nearly black in the Louisiana version. This deep, rich roux gave whatever it was added to a depth and resonance hitherto unknown in French cookery, and indeed a good dark roux is today the basis for many of the most robust recipes in the formidable New Orleans arsenal of cookery.

This good dark roux is the same sort I use in my gumbo. I call it a beer-bottle roux because it is about the same color as a brown beer bottle. To make a roux for gumbo, I take a quarter cup of olive oil and a quarter cup of vegetable oil (bacon drippings are even better) and bring to a moderate heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet with high sides (a Dutch oven is perfect). Stir in about a 1/2 cup of plain flour. With a wooden spoon or a wire whisk, stir the flour briskly as it browns. Add a little more flour to the mixture—say a tablespoon—as it cooks until all the oil is absorbed. Stir continually, scraping the bottom frequently, until the roux is a rich, dark, almost mahogany color. If you scorch the roux, start over again. You can make this roux ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for use in soups and stews and sauces for beef or game and for étouffés.

To begin the gumbo, while the roux is hot, toss in about three chopped white onions, two chopped bell peppers, and a half a bunch of celery chopped, leaves and all. Stir until the mixture has cooled slightly and the vegetables are coated. Then add a quart of warm stock. Fish stock is best, but if you have no fish stock, a rather weak chicken broth will suffice. Stir this mixture until the roux has been assimilated and the mixture begins to thicken. Add another quart of the stock. At this point you might want to put the mixture into a larger pot, since this recipe makes about six quarts of gumbo. Put the pot on a flame buster to keep the bottom from scorching, or else watch your gumbo very carefully and stir frequently but do not scrape the bottom of the pot. After this mixture has begun to thicken, add another quart of stock, three tablespoons of minced garlic, and another chopped onion. Let this mixture cook until the onions begin falling apart. Then add one pound canned diced tomatoes and two pounds of frozen sliced okra which has been rinsed under running water to reduce the mucilage, else the gumbo may become ropy. At this point, add about four heaping tablespoons of basil and fresh chopped parsley, a bunch of chopped green onions, three tablespoons of leaf thyme, a tablespoon of oregano (more if you want, but be quite careful because it will make your gumbo bitter), a tablespoon of black pepper, a tablespoon of white pepper, and a teaspoon of cayenne. Blend this very well and begin tasting. You may very well want to add more garlic, and you certainly will want to add some salt. Some people like to put a few dashes of Tabasco sauce and a little lemon juice in at this point, but I add this at the end. Also adjust your liquid, adding more if needed. Cook this mixture on low heat for an hour or so, then turn off the heat and let the flavors set.

Now you’re ready to add your seafood. Take about two pounds of small shrimp, and sauté with olive oil and garlic (I tend to have a heavy hand with the garlic, so you might want to taste your gumbo and use your own discretion). Add the shrimp to the gumbo mixture. Take also about a dozen small (3-5 oz.) catfish fillets (you can use any non-oily fish, but where I come from catfish is good and plentiful). Cut them into one inch chunks and poach them in a little of your stock water until just done. Add to the gumbo mixture.  Then poach two dozen oysters in their liquor until their edges just curl and add them to the mixture.

Bring the gumbo back up to heat, being extremely careful not to scorch the bottom of the pot as at this point you have a huge investment of time, care and money on your hands. If the gumbo seems too thick, add a little more liquid. Adjust your salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice with a bare sprinkling of filé powder, good hot crusty bread and melon. To make a chicken gumbo, use a full-flavored chicken stock, omit the tomatoes and add a tablespoon of sage to the spice mixture. You can also make a good vegetarian black-eyed pea gumbo by using a vegetable stock and adding a quart or so of cooked dried or fresh black-eyed peas using the basic seafood spice mixture You can add sausage to either the seafood or the chicken gumbo, but I prefer it in the chicken, just be sure to blanch the sausage first to leech the fat out before you add it to the gumbo mixture, else the sausage fat will overpower the other tastes.

Be creative; do whatever you want. You might want it hotter, thicker, thinner or whatever. You might not like so much celery or onion or bell pepper. You might not like tomatoes. Please yourself. But be aware that gumbo is sort of a Zen thing; it takes a certain presence of mind to make correctly, and you have to be involved at all times. It takes devotion.

Bistrettes on Parade

In Rome the nuns were writing verse for papal passion plays,
Los Angeles was hid from God beneath a pagan haze,
And I was here in Jackson Town, my thoughts in disarray,
When the dizzy news was passed around: Bistrettes were on parade!

In formation loose as poets in symphonic masquerade,
They tripped the light fantastic toe, those Bistrettes on parade.
But I locked my doors and shut my blinds, turned my eyes away;
I’d waste my time, I’d lose my place, break promises I’d made
Should I prance in dazzled splendor with those Bistrettes on parade.

But tempered though the mind may be and settled in its way,
Temptation got the best of me: Bistrettes were on parade!
We sang and danced and laughed, quoted poets in the shade,
Euphoric and bucolic, we were Bistrettes on parade!

Cheesecake at the Hoka

Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in Oxford in 1974 as a movie theater. 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 and kitchen equipment and a storage room was installed. The Moonlight served sandwiches, salads and desserts, and in a short time it became a very popular night spot in Oxford.

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 thirty 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 very well before slicing. For an amaretto variation, add two teaspoons almond extract to topping.

 

Theroux at Rowan Oak

Mississippians, particularly those of us from north Mississippi, should resign ourselves to literary scrutiny by writers of stature, since those without standing dare not scale the Parnassus of Oxford without credentials. Paul Theroux is no exception, but we should ask ourselves not only why he and others of his ilk come here, but what (if anything) they’re looking for.

Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident if not always clear clarion that reverberates from the center of Lafayette County across the world.

Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s effort spans generations.

Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, but it’s also important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed and fleeting fabric of the South, perceivable better by far in his excesses than by any others details.

 

Dispatches from Pluto: A Review

Parochialism is endemic in rural America, and though Southerners are of a naturally hospitable nature, they and Mississippians in particular have an acquired sense of xenophobia engendered by their brutal treatment at the hands of outsiders, most especially writers. In the case of Mississippi, perhaps the most stupefying recent example of such mistreatment comes from Bill Bryson, a native Iowan and former chancellor of Durham University, U.K., who recounts his 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. Bryson’s tale of his journey through Mississippi is as full of bile as most American writers who venture south, packed with shopworn stereotypes and clichés, saturated with ridicule and derision. He left Mississippi with impressions of the state that are what we have come to expect of most people who visit with baggage consisting of 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.

That same summer of 1988, V.S. Naipaul visited Jackson during a tour of the American South that resulted in his travelogue A Turn in the South, which was published the following February. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, had by that time achieved international recognition as an observer of post-colonial politics and societies. It was in this vein, that of an observer, that Naipaul visited the South, ostensibly to compare it to his own Trinidadian background. Though the issue of race was of obvious interest, the importance of race seems to move further to the background as the work progresses, and Naipaul finds himself increasingly preoccupied with describing the culture of the South, including country-western music, strict Christianity, Elvis Presley and rednecks. This shift of focus seems to take place largely in the section on Mississippi. Entitled “The Frontier, the Heartland”, his visit to the state is for the most part restricted to Jackson, where he becomes captivated with a character he calls Campbell, from whom he received a description of rednecks that fascinated and entranced Naipaul to the extent that he seems to become obsessed (he describes it as “a new craze”) with rednecks not merely as a group or class of people, but as almost a separate species; when someone tells him that “There are three of your rednecks fishing in the pond,” he “hurried to see them, as I might have hurried to see an unusual bird . . .”

Then we have Richard Grant, whose primary if not unique distinction among outside observers of Mississippi is that he did not “just pass through”. Grant is still here, though no longer in Pluto. He also sounds like a nice fellow, and his tale of buying a home on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta has a somewhat beguiling innocence about it, reminiscent of that involving a certain young lady who fell down a rabbit hole. Indeed, his story has a few other holes in it, not the least of which is why Grant, a British travel writer formerly based in Tucson but living in New York decided to “buy a house and move to Mississippi”. Some might find simply visiting here in character for a travel writer; after all, Mississippi, a state of overwhelming poverty with a stratosphere of commanding wealth, does have a perverse sort of attraction for people in search of something off the beaten path as well as a solid claim to have produced one of the most enduring and influential musical genres of any century, but the most embarrassing legacy of blues music and one augmented by Delta writers themselves (no surprise there) is the myth of the Delta as “the most Southern place on earth”, when in reality it’s just as full of “poverty, faith and guns” as any other neck of the woods between Annapolis and Austin. Three clues as to why Grant came to Mississippi to live and write are his friendship with a Delta food maven with a national profile whose well-to-do father just happened to have a high-end fixer-upper to sell in a hamlet on the eastern bank of the Yazoo River, a pixilated party with the Usual Suspects at Square Books in Oxford and Grant himself, a talented and hard-working writer with an ear for blues music as well by all appearances a bit of capital and no small amount of time on his hands. If those aren’t compelling components for a new book about the Mississippi Delta, then I challenge you to fabricate more plausible ones.

Grant is a fine writer with an amiable voice, but there’s a lot to get past in Dispatches from Pluto. He understands the intensity of isolated people and knows that in such empty places minds fix on petty matters, but in Mississippi he seems to have lost his compass on what is petty and what is not. Granted, travel writers should employ a degree of objectivity, but at some point the observer must become engaged, and throughout this book I kept asking myself, “Where is Richard Grant?” The answer is that he was making a living on many levels, steadily at work not only on what eventually became Dispatches but also on any number of other projects, including making the house he bought habitable, an effort that took an increasing amount of time and money, surely trying not only his patience but that of his long-suffering companion Mariah, not to mention Savannah. His engagement with the Mississippi Delta is in the most basic sense one of making do and getting by, one to which by his own accounts he as a free-lance writer is well accustomed and one well understood by Mississippi’s native residents. It’s worth suggesting that this is the reason he came and stayed, though there’s far more to it than that. A man such as Richard Grant does not lead a simple life.

This is not to say that all else in Dispatches is window-dressing, but much of it can be dismissed as such. One reads a great deal about the people, places and things in the Delta that any Mississippian or for that matter most people in the South or even the nation might find iconic to the point of cliché; the same tired recitation of the rich, sophisticated upper crust and poor, simple lower crust, the same circuitous itinerary of colorful towns and villages, the same boring assortment of restaurants, juke joints and run-down architecture as well as the obligatory nods to racial tension, a whole slew of blues musicians, firearms, possums and raccoons, alligators and snakes, cotton, sweet potatoes and catfish. In Dispatches from Pluto you won’t find any airy odes to the union of earth and sky or muddy elegies on the preponderance of the past; such things are no doubt within Grant’s ability, but that’s just not his style. He is a journalist at heart, a documentarian, if you will. Curtis Wilkie likens Dispatches to Innocents Abroad, which might be more apt than it appears on the surface; Twain was of course far from innocent, and one suspects that Grant’s placid detachment is a mask for the sort of ferocious cynicism Twain himself often employed, but cynicism doesn’t seem to be Grant’s style either. He is a camera with a finely-ground lens, and this is why you should read this book, particularly if you are from Mississippi: to see Mississippi through the eyes of another person who came here not to deride or ridicule but for an account of how it is being here, or in Eliot’s fortuitous phrase, to explore and perhaps arrive where we started and know the place for the very first time.

 

Creamed Eggs Chartres

I came to know Harry Ward when we worked together at The Warehouse and Audie Michael’s in Oxford during the 1980s, before the town became the characterless hipster charade of condos and concrete that it is now. Though Harry says the folks in Acadia parish would scoff at his claim to be a Cajun, Harry (who is from “N’awlins”) claims it, and I’ll always consider him the first Cajun I ever met. Harry was the first person I ever heard call a spice sack a “sock”, and he also introduced me to Tony Chachere (not literally, of course). Recently Harry sent me this wonderful Brennan’s recipe, and I learned of his ordeal with Katrina as well. While I’m sure there are thousands of such Katrina stories to be told, Harry’s seems particularly poignant to me, perhaps because it left him so far from the home he loves, or perhaps simply because it happened to my friend.

Childhood in Bay St. Louis

When Katrina struck, I was living in Bay St. Louis. Over the years, I had renovated my grandparents’ weekender there. The house was built in 1908. After about 3 years of completely renovating the whole house, I moved in in the late 90’s. As the house was only 600 feet from the Gulf of Mexico, I custom-cut plywood for my windows in preparation for hurricanes over the years. The old house was built up on brick piers about 2 feet off the ground, a typical construction at the time, with a wrap-around porch to take advantage of the sea breeze.

After Camille

As Katrina approached, I knew we would have to evacuate. For the smaller storms, I had just boarded up and rode out the storm. The house had survived Camille, which up until then had been considered “the storm of all storms”, so I knew the house was storm-worthy. My wife and 3-month daughter evacuated to friends near Lafayette, Louisiana as I did not want to go north (to Mississippi or north Louisiana) for fear of Katrina knocking out power as she moved in that direction. After the storm, television coverage of Katrina was mostly of N’awlins as the television crews could not get to the Gulf Coast. We finally saw a fly-over of Bay St. Louis and realized we wouldn’t have anything left. When we made it back to the Coast, we discovered that only the steps remained of my grandparents’ house. The house was 23 feet above sea level. We had a 30 foot storm surge.

Harry at the house after Katrina

We went to Philadelphia, to my wife’s parents’ house, for about 3 weeks. Her brother came to visit there while on business. He was living in Reno, Nevada and suggested that we come out west to Reno as he had a fully-furnished rental. We came in the belief of a temporary stay, but we’ve been here for 10 years. I’m employed with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. Katrina has been an emotional and financial strain on our family. My wife still has nightmares of water and waves even though we evacuated.

I miss the South, the friendly people that wave to everyone even if they don’t know them, the food, the conversations and the slow pace of life. I miss talking about food or our next meal, even right after finishing one: “What do you want to make with the leftover shrimp or crawfish or crabs?” Like all great Cajun recipes eggs Chartres is about how and what to do with leftovers. Like gumbo; left-over meat or seafood, a roux, and you got your gumbo. Or jambalaya; leftover meat or seafood, mixed w/ rice, and you got your jambalaya. My mom made the eggs Chartres with left-over hard boiled eggs, especially after Easter. Now, this does not mean she would not boil extra eggs at other times, for egg salad, potato salad or even creamed eggs Chartres.

Brennan’s of New Orleans: Creamed Eggs Chartres

1 cup finely chopped/shredded white onions
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups of milk
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced (reserving 4 center slices for garnishment)
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of paprika

In a large skillet sauté onion in butter until clear/transparent; stir in flour and cook slowly 3-5 minutes more. Blend in milk and egg yolk until smooth. Add salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, 8-10 minutes longer or until sauce thickens. Remove from heat, add sliced eggs and mix lightly. Spoon into 2 8-oz casseroles and sprinkle with paprika and Parmesan cheese mixed together. Bake at 350 degrees until thoroughly headed. Garnish with eggs slices; serves two. This is a wonderful breakfast or brunch recipe, and can be served in a casserole with toasted French bread slices.

Joe Ann Goes to the Hoka

Jere and Joe Ann Allen are pillars of the Oxford community and its art scene. Some years ago Joe Ann passed this story along, one which captures not only the spirit of a time and a place, but her own special brand of wit and wisdom.

Jere and I always enjoyed taking artists who were visiting the University of Mississippi Art Department to the Hoka for dinner. They always had one of two reactions: either, “I’ve never been in a place like this before!”, or “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve been in a place like this?”

On one such night, quite late, as the dinner conversation turned to art business, I watched the frat boys, their spirits and testosterone levels high, lug their coolers of beer into the theatre for the late show porno flick. After the movie started, we could hear them hooting and hollering like crazy over the lurid images projected on the screen. After a while, I became bored with the art talk and noticed that the ticket-taker had abandoned his station. So I eased around the curtains into the theater and stood in the back to see what all the commotion was about.

The name of the movie has long ago faded from memory, but I do remember that this particular flick had something of a storyline: high school cheerleaders needed to raise money to go with the team to The Big Game. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was something you could hang a hat on. I sneaked in just in time for the grand finale, the cheerleaders doing it with the football team in the locker room shower. I remember wondering how they kept the camera lens from steaming up. Soon the activity on the screen and the hooting and hollering in the theatre reached a fever pitch. Then all of a sudden the screen was filled with an extreme close-up of the old “in-and-out.” Now, I have been cursed from birth with what my Granny termed “a weak stomach,” and that close-up just didn’t sit right with me. I felt my gag reflex start up and turned to leave, but just as I did, out of the corner of my eye I caught the sight of a big pimpled ass spread out across the screen and “GAK!” there I went. I just couldn’t help myself.

Then came another “GAK,” but this time it wasn’t from me. It was some guy right in front of me. Well, that was enough to start me gakking again. Then from down in front came a BIG “GAK”, then another “GAK” from a middle aisle seat, which started me and the guy in front of me gakking all over again. Soon enough the “GAKS” in the theatre were louder than the moans and groans on the soundtrack. I managed to stagger out of there before anybody caught me. When those frat boys dragged their coolers out of the theater, they were as limp as dishrags and as pale as dishwater. And there I sat with my group, half-way listening to the conversation, pushing a pickle around on my plate and trying not to look at the mayonnaise on the tomato.