When Wyatt Cooper is mentioned at all now, it’s invariably in connection with his younger son Cooper Anderson, but Wyatt himself was a man of many parts, one of those being a damn fine writer.
Cooper was born in Quitman, Mississippi, September 1, 1927. moved to New Orleans as a young child and in his twenties moved to New York City to pursue acting.
In his thirties, Cooper lived in Los Angeles, attended both UCLA and UC Berkeley, and worked as a screenwriter. While residing in West Hollywood, then an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, Cooper lived near Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell. A close friendship developed, and a year after Parker’s death in 1967, Cooper published an incisive and widely read profile in Esquire magazine, titled, “Whatever You Think Dorothy Parker Was Like, She Wasn’t”.
Cooper moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s, and worked there as a magazine editor. On December 24, 1963, he married heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, becoming her fourth husband. The photogenic couple frequently appeared on the national “best-dressed” list. They had two sons: Carter Vanderbilt Cooper (1965-1988) and Anderson Cooper (b. 1967), who became a prominent CNN anchor. Wyatt Cooper wrote in his 1975 memoir, “It is in the family that we learn almost all we ever know of loving. In my sons’ youth, their promise, their possibilities, my stake in immortality is invested.” Wyatt Cooper died in Manhattan, New York City on January 5, 1978, at age 50, during open heart surgery, after having a heart attack the previous December.
This essay, “Of Food and Fellowship” appeared in Southern Sideboards the Junior League of Jackson’s landmark award-winning cookbook, which was first published in June, 1978.
Speak to me of food and what springs readily to my mind is not so much a recall of particular dishes I’ve relished, but a succession of images, sad and funny, sweet and tender, of people and places and happy occasions from the recent or long-gone past, a procession of dear, lost, familiar faces and voices, with the echo of laughter from other years. One remembers all those tables, some grand and richly laden, some humble and bearing simple fare, over which have flowed the talk, the tales, the exchanges that have made up the histories of our lives; the tables across which loving eyes have looked into loving eyes, and across which we have reached, friend to friend and spirit to spirit, to touch each other in precious communion. I think of vanishes loved ones and of absent friends and simpler times, of youth and joy and wonder, of those early seasons of first discoveries, the seasons in which we were blessed with Heaven’s gift for finding all the world’s delight in one bright Easter egg, all the world’s affection in one home-decorated birthday cake with our own particular name written bright upon it.
At those tables, a child, and later, the child in the adult, could watch and listen and learn. It was and would remain a place of adventure and exploration, a place where the curious eye and ear could partake of the rich store of other people’s experience, their adventures in the vast and mysterious world that waited and waits, beckoning but intimidating, outside the window; adventures, also, in those other, interior worlds of the mind, where thoughts, opinions, ideas were and are the exhilarating substance of the hungry brain.
Since our associations scurry quickly back to our beginnings, I find myself breathing deeply and knowing once again the romance and allure of the smells emanating from the kitchen of my first home, the warm, comforting aroma of biscuits baking or of coffee and bacon on cold mornings, with Mama beside the stove calling out that we must hurry.
I remember the family reunions with the piling on of food, an abundance and variety of offerings that represented God only knows how many accumulated hours of planning and preparing and packing, a feast to which more than twice our number could not have done justice. I remember the buzzing and bustling of the women crowed into Grandma’ kitchen, all full of importance and pride in marvels about to be revealed, each with her own specialty for which she was celebrated within the family—this one’s banana pudding, that one’s pineapple-upside-down cake. I think of Christmas with the smell of apples and oranges and fruit cakes and with turkeys and stuffing that make the mouth water forty years later.
I was born country, so I know all about frying just the right chickens because the preacher was coming to dinner and about all-day-singings-with-dinner-on-the-ground where heavy baskets and cardboard boxes were hauled out of the back end of family cars or even horse drawn wagons or buggies. The contents were spread proudly out, displayed like the golden wedding presents of princesses, set out upon glistening, freshly-starched and sun-dried linen cloths there would be much calling out to each other from families inviting others to try this or that from their bounty, while grabbing loose strays, especially bachelors, and there would be a scampering about of colt-legged boys, impatient and giggly while overly devout deacons went on too long at asking the blessing, when any sort of mumbled “. . . bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies . . .” would have done just as well.
I know about hog-killing time in the first sharp cool of fall, when the children were allowed to help with the scraping if they were careful to stay away from the scalding water I know about the way molasses was made, when you took turns feeding the cane into the grinder and remembered to duck each time the pole, pulled bumpily around and around by dull, plodding mules, made its way overhead again.
These activities were co-operative efforts; we didn’t do them by ourselves. Neighbors came together to help each other. We worked out the dates—Tuesday for the Longs, Thursday was the Timmses’ turn, and Monday week was for us. The doing of it was all mixed up with community feeling, with jokes and gossip and catching up on news and horseplay and grown-up talk.
What I’ve been talking about, when you come down to it, is friendship, sharing, caring. I’m talking about love. To show our love for one another we devise little rituals. We beg the passing traveler to eat. We toast brides. We drink to each other’s health. We give dinners for those we seek to honor. There is a particular bond between friends who prepare food together, between friends who dine with each other. The breaking of bread together has, for many centuries, held something of a ceremonial significance for us.
It seems as if it were always so. It was in the Bible and in the earliest Greek plays and in the writings of Homer Obviously it goes way back. I should think that it must have been soon after they first came down from the trees and began improving their manners that one of our hairy ancestors must accidentally have dropped into the cave hearth the baby brontosaurus leg on which he’d been gnawing, or stumbled onto a succulent pig just roasted by a recent forest fire, and made the revolutionary discovery that the raw and natural stuff with which he’d been sustaining his life could be improved upon. On that distant red letter day a new art form was born and man took a giant step in the direction of Julia Child.
It seems to me that the invention of cooking must have made a considerable contribution toward the very process of civilization. Surely, Mr. and Mrs. Piltdown Erectus and their children, having found the new way of dining an enrichment of the cultural tone of their own household, must certainly have hastened to call in their neighbors to share the benefits of the revelations so happily and so accidentally bestowed upon them. Thus, on that evening of joyous and primitive grunting that then served as conversation, undoubtedly began the ancient and inseparable association between eating and hospitality, the eternal connection between food and fellowship.
I should mention somewhere along here that I was not invited to set down the few words of this preface because I can claim to be a passable practitioner of that noble science. The truth is I can’t cook. Anything. My instant coffee is barely acceptable even to me, and my peanut and butter sandwiches have repeatedly been rejected by my sons. “No thanks, Daddy,” they say with wistful politeness, “We’ll make our own. Alan Campbell once told me that before his wife, Dorothy Parker, would cook anything she’d go into the kitchen and eat raw bacon. In that category at least, Dotti and I were in the same league.
One of the saddest failures of my life was the time I tried to delight my little family, those underprivileged citizens of the pre-packaged, machine-made, and mass-produced age, with the home-made ice cream that is such a treasured memory from my youth. For years I’d tried to impart to them some idea of the magical creation of that frozen treat by describing how you break up the block of ice by putting it into a croker sack and beating it with the back of an ax, pack the crushed ice tightly around the metal can inside the wooden freezer, argue over who gets to turn the crank first, (several children should be involved; the making of ice cream calls for company; in a one-child family only the presence of grandparents could compensate for the absence of other children) and finally how everybody crowds around for the miraculous moment when the lid is reverently lifted off, and the creamy, vanilla colored, heavenly swirl of pure pleasure is revealed.
My sons were skeptical but willing, and so, one summer in Southampton, having consulted by long distance with my sister in Hartford, Connecticut, I bought a freezer, assembled the ingredients, and, while she instructed over the telephone, began mixing, stirring, and beating. I suspected early on that I was in trouble when it became perfectly clear to me that while Marie makes great ice cream herself, she has no very clear idea of how she does it, “. . . just put in some sugar; you’ll know when it’s enough . . .” –that kind of direction doesn’t help at all. Honest, it doesn’t. Not unless you can already do it. Or have talent. At one point I was cooking the mixture and it started turning into something that looked suspiciously like an omelet. “I hope you didn’t use too many eggs . . .” she said encouragingly. “Does it look too yellow?” Along about then I had more than a premonition of disaster. Also, for some reason, it overflowed while we were turning the crank, the yellow seeping out the sides and mixing with the ice. That wasn’t promising.
There’s no point in pretending there’s any suspense to this story or in prolonging it, so I’ll go strait to the finish. It looked beautiful, actually. The result of all my labor looked very clean and very pretty, but it had no taste at all so far as I could tell and I could not expect those little boys, however polite and loving they are, to pretend that it was worth bothering with. Oddly enough, my wife, who has a very discerning palate, liked my ice cream. She thought it tasted like real yogurt made with goat’s milk. Maybe if my sister has a recipe for yogurt I might end up with ice cream.
Recipes, anyway, have to be fleshed out, I suspect, with the cook’s own taste, personality and inspiration. Ethel Barrymore was once rehearsing a new play with an over-eager young director who kept instructing her with details, “Move to that table. Life the book, pause, and then look at it.” She endured this for a while, then she turned to him and said sweetly, “I know just what you mean. I lift the book, pause, and then look at it, and it is then that I do that special, unexplainable thing that causes audiences to come to see me and enables me to earn a thousand dollars a week.” She made her point. With great cooks, as with great stars, there is that “special, unexplainable thing” that has to do with taste, authority, and uniqueness of personality, and the beginner, I should think, should be encouraged to trust his or her own particular instincts and exercise his or her own creativity.
In Saki’s short story, “The Blind Spot”, one character says, “the man is a common murderer,” and another replies, “A common murderer, perhaps, but a very uncommon cook.” This book contains the secrets of many very uncommon cooks, great stars, splendid artists of the kitchen; secrets, many of them, that have considerable histories, having been handed down, generation to generation, from one famous cook to another.
I am fascinated by the great variety of cooking styles assembled here, representing many different traditions and widely varying national origins. Some recipes remain pretty much as they were when Great-Grandma was finally persuaded to write them down, or when Cousin Jessica spied on some selfish and secretive cook and wrote down each step se took, each pinch of salt, each wave of the hand in the direction of the pot. Others have evolved through adaptation, experiments, and happy accidents. A few of them doubtless traveled south with the earliest settlers, moving along the Natchez Trace from Virginia, the Carolinas or Kentucky, personally watched over by the woman of the family, along with a treasured set of china, an ancestral portrait, a silver candlestick, or some other heirloom.
Outsiders tend to think of the South as all one thing, when, of course we know that our extraordinary diversity is one of our most attractive features. We have absorbed many things from many sources, and have made them our own. Take grits. Grits has (sic;jly), of late been mentioned in the news somewhat frequently as a native southern specialty, which it is. It is very native, indeed, sine it was given to us by the Indians, along with corn bread and many other things. Blacks have made a contribution that is hard to measure, for many black cooks have been among the nameless geniuses who’ve left the culinary art a better one for their having participated in it. The French and Spanish influence on cooking is very important in the South, and though New Orleans is most famous for it, excellent French and Creole restaurants are strung along The Mississippi Gulf Coast all the way to Mobile.
In the past couple of years I’ve traveled around my native Mississippi a great deal, and I’ve enjoyed everything from baked dove at the governor’s mansion to fried catfish and hush puppies in Vicksburg and stuffed breast of chicken in Natchez, from ham hocks and turnip greens in Meridian to sirloin steak in Columbus, hot tamales in Greenville, and Creole gumbo and soft shelled crabs in Biloxi. In West Point, Mayor Kenny Dill went out and picked blackberries and Mrs. Dill made them into pie for me. Who wouldn’t choose a blackberry pie over a key to the city?
Which brings me full circle and back to hospitality. My children are startled by the extraordinary lengths that Southerners go in order to make the visitor feel at home among them. Very often, when we have been guests in someone’s home, neighbors have rushed in to leave off (or sometimes simply leave out-side the door) a basket of yard eggs or fresh butter or vegetables taken from their gardens that morning.
How many times it has happened that after a speech I’ve found someone thrusting into my hands a container of home-made fudge or a jar of fig preserves, saying “Take these to Carter and Anderson,” or “I beg Gloria’s never had watermelon rind preserves,” and slipping away before I could get the names? I’ve even been presented with chitlin’s (or chitterlings, and the dictionary spells it) and though anybody who knows me can testify that I’ve always been proud of my farm background, in the matter of chitlin’s, born country or not, I didn’t know what they were and wasn’t too curious to find out. I guess somethings are just meant to be forgotten, but Idid appreciate the thought. (Though not enough, you understand, to confront my wife with the chitlin’s.)
Oh, just one more thing. A story about one of my great uncles—one of the Campbells, I think. Having lost his wife (by death, I mean; she wasn’t simply misplaced) he was looking around for a replacement and in mentioning the most desired qualification, he made the following obsertion:
“The huggin’ and kissin’ don’t last forever. The cookin’ do.”
What is the South?
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.
In March, 2017, Joan Didion published the notes of her jaunt forty-eight years ago through Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in a slender book, South and West (Knopf). We’ll take a much more in-depth look at the book in a later entry, but first let’s focus on the passage in which Didion meets with the legendary “Voice of the Rebels” Stan Torgerson, in Torgerson’s home town of Meridian, Mississippi.
Bear in mind as you read that the month is June, the year is 1970. Nixon is in the White House for his first term. The nation as a whole is in a somewhat less turbulent mode after the riotous Sixties, but no section is more complacent than the South, where the key word had become progress. This passage is in essence an examination of the ongoing homogenization of the South as seem through the eyes of a transplant from the upper Midwest (Torgerson) and told to a visitor from California. At times Torgerson sounds like a one-man chamber of commerce espousing racial harmony, social equality and industrialization. When Stan says, “We’re not as inbred as we used to be” he’s referring not (necessarily) to genetics but instead to the influx of people and ideas from outside the South; when he says “we don’t wear crinolines any more” he’s telling Didion that Old South is gone. But though he says, “If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” as they drive through residential Meridian, the issues of race and poverty he discusses are those of the South.
This section from Didion’s work appears here in its entirety not only for the more compelling reason that it needs to be read in toto to grasp its exhaustive effect on Didion and to understand more fully Didion’s comments in context—particularly the last line—but also on a somewhat sentimental level because those many of you–as I do–remain familiar with Torgerson’s voice from his 17 years on air with Ole Miss sports might recollect his voice in the cadences of the quoted passages.
When I called Stan Torgerson for lunch at his radio station, WQIC, and asked him the best place to lunch, he said Weidmann’s, “but it wouldn’t win any Holiday Magazine awards.” In fact it had, and was not a bad restaurant, but everyone in Mississippi begins on the defensive. “I’ll be the biggest man in a green shirt to come through the door,” he advised me. He was, at lunch, wary at first. He said he didn’t think I knew what I was doing. I agreed. He refused drink, saying he wasn’t in New York City. Stan Torgerson came out of the cold North (Minnesota, I think) and headed to Memphis, where he went into broadcasting. He worked in Miami, and then, for a year, in San Diego, living in La Jolla. He felt ill at ease in La Jolla—his neighbors kept to themselves, had their own interests—and he wanted to get back south. His son had won a football scholarship to Ole Miss. He was worried about his children and drugs in California. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I just haven’t reached the point where I think pot is a way of life.”
When the black radio station in Meridian came up for sale he bought it. He also broadcasts the Ole Miss games, something he began doing when he was in Memphis. “That’s right,” he said, “I own the ethnic station, WQIC. In its thirteenth year of serving the black community here.” He programs gospel and soul, and reaches 180,000 in several Mississippi and Alabama counties, the thirty-second largest black market in the country, sixty miles in all directions and forty-three percent of that area is black. We serve a major black market, program soul music and gospel music, but what does that mean? A month ago in Billboard there was a survey pointing out that the Top 40-format stations are playing basically soul. Jackson 5 with ‘ABC.’ ‘Turn Back the Hands of Time,’ that’s Top 40 but it’s soul. Once in a while we throw in some blue-eyed soul, like Dusty Springfield with ’Son of a Preacher Man.’ We don’t play rock because our people don’t dig it. We don’t play your underground groups like the Jefferson Airplane . .. We have goodly reason to believe that ten to fifteen percent of our audience is white; some of the phone calls we get in the afternoon for dedications, they’re definitely white voices. We get thirty-six percent of the audience.”
He said I was probably wondering why he came back to Mississippi. “I came because I dearly love this state. I have a son—he’ll be a senior this fall—playing football at the University of Mississippi.”
He pointed out that Meridian was timber country, hill country. Pulpwood is the backbone of the agricultural product. He pointed out how progressive Meridian was: its three new hospitals. “In most southern cities there is a much stronger tendency to old-line money . . . Southern retailers stayed in business privately, home-owned, until very recently. In most cases the retailer has just begun to feel the competition from the chains. There’s the greatest business opportunity in the country right here in the South . . . We don’t have a McDonald’s in a city of almost fifty thousand people, don’t have any of these franchises here yet. You give one corner of one intersection in Jackson, Mississippi, or you give me the whole ball of wax right here in Meridian, I’d take the whole ball of wax and I’d put a McDonald’s on one corner, a Burger Chef on the other, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (sic! jly) ‘cross the street . . . “
His voice kept on, weaving ever higher flights of economic possibility. “There is and must be,” he said, a “continued turning to the South by industry. The climate is certainly one reason. Another is that the South wants industry and is willing to give a tax advantage to get it. Another, of course, is that there is a relatively low level of unionism in the South. Lockheed assembles tail sections here and ships them to California for assembly . . .
“Atlanta is the magic city for the young around here, across the whole social spectrum . . . The great migration out in the past ten years has been black, they get these glowing letters, and of course they’ve got relatively liberal welfare programs in some of the northern states . . . No doubt, too, there appears to be greater opportunity in the North.”
More on the progressive nature of Meridian: “Our radio station has probably got as fine a list of blue-chip clients as any in town, black or not. We’ve got all four banks, and anyone in retailing who’s interested in doing business with the black—the black’s dollar is very important. The minimum wage was probably the most important thing to happen along these lines, and then food stamps were a good dead, I would say they added millions of dollars to the economy.”
“We are in a transitional phase. There’s a tremendous push to education on the part of young blacks. The schools here are completely integrated. Of course, neither you not I can change the older black, the forty-year old, his life patterns are settled.”
“Ole Miss has its standards to keep up. As more and more blacks get an educational advantage, you’ll see blacks at Ole Miss. There’s a feeling among some black leaders that because these kids have not had advantages they should get some kind of educational break, but basically what has to happen is the standards have to stay up and the people come up to meet them.”
We were driving through town at night, and Stan Torgerson interrupted himself to point out the post office. “There’s the post office, the courthouse where the famous Philadelphia trials were held, the trials for the so-called Philadelphia deaths.”
“If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” Stan observed as we drove through the residential district. He pointed out his $29,500 house, a two-story frame, “twenty-eight hundred square feet, with magnolia, dogwood and pecan trees.” He pointed out Poplar Drive the “Park Avenue of Meridian, Mississippi, all the houses built by the old-line families.”
Fervently, he kept reverting to the wholesomeness of life in Meridian. His daughter, who would be a high school senior in the fall, had “her sports, her outdoor activities, her swimming. It’s a quiet, pacific type of living, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come back down here. The kids are taught to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ I know it’s very fashionable to poke fun at the South, but I’ll pit our slum area any day against the slum areas where the Cubans and Puerto Ricans live in Miami, Florida, and Miami’ll lose.”
Meridian is the largest city between Jackson and Birmingham, and there is a naval base there which means a great deal to the community. At apartment buildings largely inhabited by the navy there are cars with plates from all over the country.
Some random social observations from Stan Torgerson included: most of the local children go to college within the state, at Ole Miss or Mississippi (sic jly): the other country club, built with federal money, has a membership which includes “assistant managers of stores and some navy people’: most of the subdivisions in Meridian feature “custom houses.” Torgerson paused dramatically, to emphasize the versatility of the new blood in town: “A fabric store.”
I asked if some of the children did not leave, and he allowed that some did. “Nothing here for the kid with an engineering degree. And of course the girls go where they marry. Southern girls are notoriously husband hunting, but I guess that’s the same anywhere.” It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
Torgerson was would up now, and I could not stop his peroration. “There’s been a great metamorphosis in recent years in the South, the Volkswagen dealership for example comparable in size to anything you’ll find anywhere.”
“The KKK which used to be a major factor in this community isn’t a factor anymore, both the membership and the influence have diminished, and I cannot think of any place where the black is denied entrance, with the possible exception of private clubs. We don’t have any antagonistic-type black leaders working against racial harmony. Since the advent of black pride, black power, there is a little tendency to be self-segregating. On our station, we have a program we call Adventures in Black History to point out the contributions black people have made—a black minister does it. I have blacks working in the WAIC Soul Shop, and there’s a black druggist here, a man eminently qualified, who is a local boy who went north and came back, received his training at the University of Illinois. We have a certain degree of black business, including this gas station here, which is owned by a black. The key is racial harmony, and education, and we’ll try to provide our people with both, ‘cause we’re gonna live together a long time. Every major retailer hires black clerks, Sears has a couple of black department heads, there’s a black business college here, and a black and white Careen Training Institute.
“Of course we have transplants, too, new ideas, like any other hybrid we’re generally stronger. We’re not nearly as inbred as we used to be. We’ve been withdrawn in this part of the South for many, many years, but we’ve become more aggressive, and as people come in they’ve helped us become more aggressive—we don’t wear crinolines anymore, no we don’t.”
“And about our politics, well, George Wallace got a lot of votes in Indiana, let’s face it. I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ‘cause I’m not. But things are changing. I had a man the other day, owns an appliance store, he never believed you could send a black repairman into somebody’s house. Now he can’t find a white … He asks me if I know a black man who makes a good appearance. That’s progress . . .”
Of course, there’s a tremendous lack of skilled blacks, and the problem is training and education. It’s no longer a matter of lack of opportunity, it’s a matter of lack of skills. We’re still two generations from full equality, but so are they in Chicago, in Detroit, and have you ever been in Harlem?”
Glazed by the two hours in which this man in the green shirt had laid Meridian out before us as an entrepreneur’s dream, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (!) on every corner and progress everywhere, even at the country club, I dropped him off and drove through the still-deserted streets of the downtown. A few black women were on the streets and they carried umbrellas against the sun. It was almost five o’clock. In the middle of 22nd Avenue, the main street of Meridian, there was a man holding a shotgun. He had on a pink shirt and a golfing cap, and in one ear there was a hearing aid. He raised the shotgun and shot toward the roof of a building several times.
I stopped the car and watched him a while, then approached him. “What are you shooting at?” I asked.
“Pi-eagins,” he said cheerfully.
In this one demented afternoon Mississippi lost much of its power to astonish me.
One of Anthony Bourdain’s last works is an introduction to Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, originally published in 1975, to be rereleased on June 26. In his tribute, Bourdain calls Mitcham’s cookbook “one of the most influential of my life.”
Dan Simon, founder and publisher of Seven Stories Press said he and his team approached Bourdain because they knew that he was “an admirer of Mitcham.” Bourdain’s culinary career started in the early 1970s in Provincetown, where Mitcham was already a legend. “He was just so terrific,” Simon said. “I think he loved the gusto with which Howard lived his life and cooked and brought it all together.”
A writer, a scholar and an artist as well as the foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great. A name chef during what Bourdain himself called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of food, people, art and lore.
Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times. His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his writings on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seem to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”
James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on June 11, 1917. His father, a house painter, died when he was a year old. His mother moved to Vicksburg to find work, leaving the infant Howard with her parents on their watermelon farm on Sawmill Road. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis. For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherency. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”
Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. A May 30, 1934 clipping from “The Pica”, the GHS school newspaper, includes a column by Mitcham (“Rigmarole”) and three poems by Foote. A news article in the same issue notes: “Walker Percy, freshman at the University of North Carolina and member of last year’s graduating class, will journey to Germany for a three months’ tour of that country,” adding that “the tour will be made on foot and on bycicles (sic)”.
After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University as an art student, and at some point, in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery. During this time, he became the model for “the stone-deaf man” in Marguerite Young’s epic work, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Sabina said that during Mitcham’s days in New York, Walker Percy would come to stay with him, often sleeping on the floor in Mitcham’s tiny apartment in the Village.
What quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown.
An editor of ‘The Provincetown Advocate’ described Mitcham as “Artist, block print maker, chef par excellence, pro-beatnik, draughtsman and one of the most talented nuts ever to come into Provincetown.” Mitcham maintained an art gallery on the Cape, painted signs and repaired clocks, once publishing an article on antique clocks in Gentleman’s Quarterly). In the 1960s, Mitcham wrote a column in the Advocate called the “The Cape Tip Gourmet” and another called “The Cape Curmudgeon”. He wrote that the first place he headed when he first arrived in Provincetown, and most likely from then on, was Town Wharf. “It made my heart jump to see the enormous hauls of herring that the trap boats were bringing in,” Mitcham said. “But my gourmet’s heart was broken when I found out that this wonderful fish was being knocked down for two bucks and fifty cents a barrel and shipped off to the cat food factory.”
His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1975 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. Bourdain, who worked in Provincetown during the mid-1970s when he was attending (of all places) Vassar, knew Mitcham and in his Kitchen Confidential writes that “Howard was the sole ‘name chef’ in town.”
“To us, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues,” Bourdain wrote. “He could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen’s bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly (he liked to sing as well). Though drunk most of the time and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman of Cape cod cookery, a respected chef of a very busy restaurant and the author of two very highly regarded cookbooks: The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook and Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz—two volumes I still refer to, and which were hugely influential for me and my budding culinary peers of the time. He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer’s gut and he wore the short-sleeved-snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for the humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.”
“We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook. Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”
In Provincetown Mitcham bonded strongly with the Portuguese community and his love for them shines from his works. In his first book, Fishing on the Gulf Coast (1959; Hermit Crab Press), Mitcham claims he contacted the Portuguese Embassy to obtain a recipe, and the Provincetown book has many, many more. “Transplanting the Azores Islanders to Provincetown was a great step forward because they brought with them their beautifully rambunctious cookery, and this husky, euphoric cuisine has quietly worked its way into Cape Cod and New England cookery in general,” he wrote. “I have been observing Portuguese cooks for twenty-five years, and I find that they have the following relative units of measurement: (1) a little, (2) some, (3) a bit more, (4) a lot, (5) plenty, (6) enough.”
The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook includes sections on the history of Provincetown and the Cape Cod itself—the people, the fishing industry and the rich culture that pervades the area—as well as a plenitude of splendid recipes for clams, mussels, the storied Welfleet oysters (en Bienville et Rockefeller of course), snails and the multitude of fishes that crowd the Cape’s waters: cod, striped bass, mackerel, salmon, halibut, bluefish and striped bass. Mitcham also includes his haddock amandine (meuniere). If for no other reason, we should be inordinately proud of Howard Mitcham for easing in a recipe for Creole gumbo in a cookbook focused on Cape Cod. Admittedly, unless you have the sort of budget that allows you to get quahogs on the fly, most of the recipes present an almost insurmountable challenge for any cook south of Hoboken, but Mitcham is a bold, eloquent raconteur with a passion for his subject, and anyone with an ear for good writing, a hunger for good food and a sheer love of life will relish The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook.
The Mississippi Museum of Natural Science is a center for study and research, a treasure trove of information. The original museum was established in 1932, originating out of its founder Fannye Cook’s passion for studying Mississippi’s natural world. Cook was the force behind the creation of the Mississippi agency known as the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and its educational and research arm, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. She was the first person to collect and catalog Mississippi wildlife and led the effort to protect and restore the state’s natural environment.
Fannye Addine Cook was born in Crystal Springs, Mississippi on July 19, 1889. By that time, Mississippi like most of the South was catastrophically being stripped of the great virgin forests that stretched from east Texas to tidewater Virginia. In A Turn in the South, V.S. Naipaul spoke with a woman in Jackson who said, “When I was a little girl—say in 1915—they were still clearing (the forests). They would go and chop around these mighty oaks and they would then die and they would cut them. When they were going to clear out a field they would kill the trees. I never paid any attention to it. It was what they did.” As James Cummins notes in his Preface, “the blackland prairie of eastern Mississippi had been cultivated to less than one percent of its former size, “White-tailed deer, Louisiana black bear, American alligator, wood duck, and other species were nearly eliminated by lawless exploitation. Streams and rivers were choked with eroding soil. The idea of caring for the land and its community of inhabitants, what writer and ecologist Aldo Leopold called a ‘land ethic,’ had not taken hold in Mississippi.”
That this biography of Fannye includes in its first few pages the following vivid documentation of passenger pigeons in Mississippi strikes a strong, graceful and resounding note against a lack of consideration for the natural world. The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird, perhaps even the most abundant vertebrate, on the planet. Audubon once watched a flock pass overhead for three days and estimated that at times more than 300 million pigeons flew by him each hour. But these birds were slaughtered unmercifully during the 19th century, and after a description of one massacre, Audubon wrote, “Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease, as they not unfrequently quadruple their numbers yearly, and always at least double it.” From this perspective, these numbers seem incredulously inflated, yet as the slaughters continued and the forests fell–particularly the great beech woods of the Ohio Valley–the passenger pigeon declined in number with proportionate rapidity, and their extinction was sealed by the death of the last known member of the species, a female named Martha (after the first First Lady) that died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Libby Hartfield, former director of the Museum, said, “Cook’s passion for wildlife conservation continued to the end of her life. The day before she died in April 1964, at age 75, she led a group of young people on a bird-watching expedition.” Though many of Cook’s specimens at the old Jefferson Street museum were destroyed by water during the 1979 Jackson flood, her documents and other materials form the core of the 18,000-volume library in the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. It was there I sought information about the last passenger pigeons in Mississippi. A long-time librarian at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, Mary Stripling, provided me with this information concerning passenger pigeons in Mississippi. “Jesse,” Mary wrote, “You are grasping at straws looking for the last one sighted in Mississippi.” She then cited several primary resources for more information, and also gave me the last sight records in their collection, adding that they appear to be handwritten by Miss Cook herself.
Year: 1848; Observer: T. J. Pierce; Place: Brookhaven – Bayou Pierre. “One fall the pigeons came one afternoon by the thousands. There were so many and they were so thick the sun could not be seen and they darkened the sky. They flew low, many of them only 10 or 12 feet, so low that they could be knocked down with brush. They settled in the trees just on edge of grandfather’s farm and weighted them down. Many men and boys went out and shot them to eat — meat dark about like guinea. Only this one time were they seen there.”
Year : 1878; Observer: G. M. Cook; Place: Copiah County – Utica. “Still a good many pigeons in Pearl River swamp and on hills. Daddy killed several at one shot out of a flock of about 20 in the top of a big pine tree over 100 ft. high (short leaf pine). In 1858 very large flocks so large and so low that Daddy and other school kids would run thru them with arms spread. The birds moved out of their way just far enough to keep from getting caught by the children.”
Undoubtedly straggling bands of passenger pigeons survived in Mississippi for perhaps a decade afterwards but were likely exterminated–or perhaps simply expired on their own out of sheer loneliness–well before the turn of the century. Yes, I was grasping at straws, but I knew where to look for the information I needed about the natural world in the state of Mississippi and thanks to Fannye Cook I found it. Whether you’re a hunter, a hiker or just someone loves Mississippi, buy this book, support local conservation groups and take care of your piece of the planet. Above all, remember Martha.
Jack Myers stood at the forefront of gay rights in Mississippi for over fifty years, running a series of gay bars and clubs in the capital city of Jackson. In this interview Myers talks about the many places he ran and shares his memories of others.
This all started back when I was in high school, we’re talking 1962-63. I finished radiology school, lived in Memphis for a while, lived in Eupora for a while, worked at the state hospital and at the VA. While I was at the VA they sent me to Duke for a year for in-service training, and was hoping for a position in Jackson, but they never got the position open, and I gave them 30 days to decide if they were going to give me more money, but they just kept putting it off, so I left after 30 days.
The first gay bar I can recall going to was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. You go down here and you turn on Mayes Street, Cowboy Malone’s used to be right there by the tracks, and there’s a little bitty building on the other side of the track and it was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. As a matter of fact, I had my 21st birthday there. I worked there when I was… it was in ’60-something. I was in X-ray school at UMC at the time. There have always been clubs in Jackson that weren’t openly gay but where gay people were welcome. I remember T.C. Schilling, one of the first people I met when I came out here, he used to own Jackson Commercial College, and he talks of some places that he used to go and one was down there on West Capitol Street, and there was a place off Robinson Road, you know where East Ford used to be? Where Robinson Road crosses Hwy. 80? If you leave here and go out Robinson Road you’ll cross Ellis Avenue, and right before you get to Hwy. 80 on the left facing Hwy. 80 used to be East Ford. You get behind the Ford place and you turn right, there’s a long road that goes through there, and he said he used to go to a place, there was a woman that had a bar out there. He said she’d take up for the gays in a minute, wouldn’t let anybody bother anybody. And there’s a lot of (gay) people I know used to go to the Walthall Hotel downtown. That was in the ‘60s.
I worked at the Sportsman’s Lounge, then he closed that bar and opened a place on McDowell Road where the police shooting range is now. That was all wooded then, it had a drive that went up to this big old house; it was called the Mansion. The guy lived upstairs, and one side of the downstairs was the bar. And if the sheriff’s department or the police came by and two guys and two girls were dancing, they’d just switch partners.
I know when I first came out, on Woodrow Wilson, where you take a left and get on Bailey Avenue, they took several old houses and made them into businesses and there was a place called Chez Pierre’s that was gay-friendly. The Glass Kitchen on Five Points was a popular restaurant. When I was in school at UMC from ’64-66 all of us who were in school would go to Delta Drive because they’d taken a lot of old houses up there and turned them into bars and they had bands, you took your own bottle, they only sold beer. There was the Pepper Mint Twist Lounge, the Hilltop A-Go-Go, the Sirloin Room; the Sirloin Room always had this great band called the Poppas.
I can’t remember the exact year I opened my first bar, but it was in the early ‘70s. It was on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King Drive. And I moved from there downtown to the old Wagon Wheel which was on Capitol and Farish Streets upstairs. The entrance was on Farish. Then we bought the old Amite Theatre. It was behind Jack’s Saloon, it was on the corner of Amite and Roach; they were back-to-back. There was a Dr. Wade Windham who opened a bar there, a straight bar called the City Dump, I think it was. They took old cars and made benches and booths out of them. We sold them all for scraps. We completely remodeled it.
Bill’s Disco (black bar) was on the corner of Amite and Mill Streets there by the train station. It was called the Interchange when we had it. I’m thinking that when the old theatre burned we moved there and called it the Interchange and Bill Rimes ran it for us… well, the old theatre was called Bill’s Disco and it burned in 80-something. And then we moved on the corner across the street to that small building, opened it was the Interchange on Amite. They tore the old Amite Street Theatre down and built that monstrosity in the back; I can’t remember what it’s called (This is the catty-corner building on the corner of Roach and Amite.)
The dance bar on Capitol was Jack and Jill’s. It wasn’t the first bar; it was the first big dance bar. I don’t know if it was this article (in a local paper), but there was also one in the Washington Post that quoted me as saying that I had the first (gay) bar in Jackson, and no, I didn’t. There were bars years before I had one here. There was a girl bar where Amite Street gets to Capitol and crosses Capitol and turns into Robinson Road. I’m thinking that’s where it was. The road that goes by the train station, Amite, comes in (at an angle) there and crosses Capitol. There’s a little bar that sits there, there’s a parking lot out front. There’s been a bar there for years, but there was a girl that had it for a while. Her name was Polly Wilmer. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in years and Harry and I went by the Waffle House to get something to eat and this girl came by and said, “Are you Jack Myers?” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, this is Polly Wilmer,” she said. Oh, my God, I hadn’t seen her in years, and she’d gotten big, huge and she used to be a little tiny thing. We talked for a while; she used to have that bar, it was on Robinson Road, I think, used to be a Waffle House or something that sat right in here. It wasn’t Mississippi Street.
When I first opened Mae’s Cabaret on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King, we got some hassle from the police. I was working at the Raincheck on Northside Drive; going west on Northside drive, you cross over the train tracks and as soon as you crossed over the tracks you took a left and there used to be a brickyard there. The only thing left there was an office; it was very small. It had a nice-sized room in the front, and a nice-sized room in the back, but to get to the back, you had to go through a hallway where the bathrooms were. And then you had the back room, where people could dance. When the police came in, the lady who ran the door would push a button under the desk and a light would flash and everybody would know to sit down. Because in order to have a dance license, you had to have an emergency exit off the dance floor, and there wasn’t a door back there. But one of the policemen said something to Doris about, “We know you have that light,” and she said, “I’m not worried about having a door back there, you know, trying to hem in a queen… (laughter).”
Doris wanted me and her to go into business, I worked with her for a long time, she wanted to open up a bigger place. I think I got a mortgage on my house; I had it paid for. So we opened up the place (Capitol and Farish?), and the police chief said, “The only thing I ask, you know, it’s fine having the show, but I want someone from vice and narcotics to come see the show.” And he did. It was Officer Fitzgerald. After that was over, he said, “Man, I don’t see anything wrong with these shows.” And I said, “Well, I did the right thing, paid the first people off when you told me not to have a show, and sent them back to Atlanta, but it’s not a strip show.” He said, “Well, I see that now, but somebody told us you were going to have a strip show.” That’s when we saw the chief and he said if the church could have their womanless wedding, then we could have a drag show.
When we had the old Amite Theatre downtown, we had a bunch in a pickup came by, they did not get out, just came by yelling stuff out to us. That’s the only incident we ever had like that. We always had off-duty city policemen working for us. Just a uniform; they could wear their uniforms. 95% of our protection was just them being at the bar. If you had an off-duty policeman working for you, you had to carry liability insurance and name the Jackson police department on that policy. That’s how you got to hire them. If you’re going to use a policeman, they want their ass covered. It wasn’t that expensive. It either paid a half a million or a million.
(In Jack’s bars) Momma and Daddy ran the door. And if Momma didn’t recognize you, the first thing she’d say was, “This is a gay bar, you’re welcome, and if you don’t like it or whatever, you can leave. If you cause trouble, we have a policeman here.” If it was someone (like a public figure) who might be looking around to see what was going on, she’d tell them not to be nervous, to come on in. Well-known people who were on the make’d go to New Orleans or somewhere like that where nobody could see them. People would come to me all the time and say, “I saw So-and-so (in this gay bar) in New Orleans.” They couldn’t come out here but could there.
This is a third in a series of articles on the Belhaven neighborhood by Bill and Nan Harvey. In it we look at some of our early institutions and neighbors who frequented them. Some are gone, some still remain; here’s their history.
Miss Eudora Welty (1909-2001) is generally acknowledged as Belhaven’s greatest literary treasure. A writer of true greatness and internationally recognized in that regard as well as for her Depression era photography, she was our neighbor on Pinehurst who shopped at Jitney 14, studied in our libraries, and visited along the sidewalks of our neighborhood.
Miss Welty won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1973 for The Optimists Daughter and was recognized internationally in 1996 when French Consul General Gerard Blanchot came to Jackson and pinned the red-ribboned star of the French Legion of Honor on her silk gown. Legions of articles and books have been written about Eudora Welty including a biography by Belhaven resident Suzanne Marrs. Her life and works are available in bookstores and libraries everywhere. Yet in spite of all her notoriety our famous neighbor was a gracious and humble lady whose kindness was a prime example of gentility.
There are hundreds of stories about Miss Welty, her gentle manner, and sly sense of humor. I have my own. Some of you remember the “hippie days”, when Beatle emulating young people wore their hair long, donned love beads and sported Nehru jackets. There was a restaurant at the end of South Jefferson Street which shall remain nameless, whose proprietors were of the old school. One summer evening Miss Eudora was escorted by two Belhaven College students to the establishment for dinner. The owners took one look at the young men and ordered the trio out. “We don’t serve men with long hair,” they proclaimed. Miss Welty thanked the restaurant owners and departed. Frank Hains, arts and entertainment editor for the Jackson Daily News, heard of the incident and wrote a scathing column in which he demanded an apology. Although the article could not have benefited the restaurant owners, Miss Welty defended the restaurant saying it was their right (then) to refuse service. When asked if she would return under different circumstances she smiled and evoked one of her favorite expressions, “We’d be fools if we didn’t.”
There was no facility to service automobiles in early Belhaven. Residents had to go downtown for gasoline, oil changes and minor repair work. However, that changed in 1928 when a little one pump gas station, designed by Jackson architect Hays Town was built at the northwest corner of Poplar and Hazel Streets. Through the years the little station, which resembled a miniature version of a colonial home, sold petroleum products, nostrums and notions until it closed in 1969. Architects Thomas Goodman and Sam Mockbee adapted the old station to their needs in 1978. According to Goodman, Mrs. Mathew O’Riley a Belhaven third grade teacher, named it “Shady Nook”.
Shady Nook was a way station for the neighborhood kids. Belhaven architect Bob Canizaro who lived on Kenwood, recalls he used his grass mowing money to buy fudge sickles there. Bill Harvey would meet other neighborhood kids on Saturday morning at the Nook to air up his bike tires, grab some Nabs and head for Laurel Street Park. But it was also once a popular hangout for Belhaven coeds as it sold ice cream, candy, soft drinks, peanuts, bobby pins, toiletries and….cigarettes. Today it serves as the office for Henry LaRose Realty. There were many things young ladies had to be shielded from in the 30’s and 40’s and not the least of these were cigarettes. We didn’t know as much about those things then as we do now and after all, Bogie and McCall smoked in their movies; they were stars so it had to be cool. After classes and on weekends, a few of the more daring young ladies from the college slipped down to Shady Nook to light up. No teachers or housemothers were present. Sophistication abounded. It was their refuge.
Throughout the late 1920’s and early 30’s Belhaven continued its eastward growth. Streets which had been named for individuals were now being named generically. Streets west of St. Ann and St. Mary were established but Piedmont, Howard, Divine, Myrtle, Belmont and Ivy were still in the process of being developed. One little street which ran from Riverside to Belmont no longer exists – a victim of the new interstate which eliminated it in the early 1960’s. That street was Enterprise and deserves a place in our history.
Whatever happened to Enterprise Street
One short block from head to feet.
From Belmont down to Riverside,
Eight little Houses side by side.
Like Persimmon and Olive Streets
It was one block long and 30 feet deep,
Like bigger brothers it was a part
Of children’s laughter after dark.
No curb or gutters or walk-alongs,
Just a row of Craftsman homes,
The pavement was of crushed grey slate,
Where boys and girls would roller-skate.
Over thirty years it had its place
Near the park it once did face,
And when it lost out in sixty-one
Its memory lies where the traffic runs.
Short and sweet was Enterprise Street,
No longer here for us to greet,
But like other pieces of our past
Its presence here will always last.
There are still mysteries on our streets. Some neighbors remember the little private library on the south side of the 2000 block of Laurel where concrete steps led to a side building no longer there. Where was Vinegar Bend? Was Poplar Boulevard designed to be a true boulevard with a median and sidewalks? Intersecting sidewalks leading into Poplar stop short of the street itself. Was that public land to be part of Poplar? Why was Persimmon never developed east of Greymont? Early maps show it going through to St. Ann. Were there walkways bridging the dead ends of Monroe? Where did Euclid get its name? Did Milsaps students name it for the father of geometry? Does anyone know?
In 1925, Belhaven Heights Part 2, an irregularly shaped subdivision, was platted. The subdivision bordered the Belhaven campus on the west, from Poplar north four blocks to Laurel, along St. Mary and St. Ann Streets opening up a much larger area going north to Riverside Drive and east from the college to Myrtle. Within this subdivision Jackson land developer L.L. Mayes saw an opportunity for affordable housing for young families. Mayes began the development of the Sylvandell subdivision in the late 1920’s and many of its homes of varied architectural style can be found on the east side of the 1400 block of St. Mary Street and around the southeastern corner of Laurel to what was then called Sylvandell Park.
Other developers were discouraged by the rough and hilly terrain but not Mr. Mayes then living with his family in a neoclassical home on Pinehurst. In addition to building homes he commissioned sculptor Joseph Barras, to design a concrete entrance of wide steps anchored by nymphs and leading down to the bucolic setting which became Laurel Street Park. Along the path into the park were fairy tale figures of Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf and others. Behind the homes on St. Mary and Laurel Streets were woodlands to the west and a meadow to the east. A descending natural stairway led from the white borders down to ravines, undergrowth, and two small creeks. The walkways coursed through rustic walls emulating old English countrysides. Homes were built of buff brick – trimmed in white, and topped with light, apple green tiled roofs. The homes were set among the trees, as if in a forest which was designed to make them more attractive from the street. The entranceway to what was to become Laurel Street Park was at the eastern terminus of Pinehurst Street. This stately entrance was guarded by the mythological Pan and his nymphs the remains of which are visible today.
Pan and his friends have gone back to the flocks and shepherds from whence they came and the little footbridge, children’s statues and walkways have returned to the soil. The creeks run quietly and children still play in the park but if you look carefully along the driveway at 1331 St. Mary, you will see Pan with his flute, a paean to what exists today, a subdivision whose beauty can be found nowhere else in our neighborhood.
Nearby additional developments were taking place. The Belhaven Park subdivision which includes Pinehaven, Parkhurst and River Park, platted 11/3/1939 by the Presbyterian Church USA. The Belvoir subdivision which includes Belvoir Place and Circle was platted 6/26/51 by the Belhaven College Board of Trustees. What was once the northern end of Belhaven Lake is now a sinuous tree lined street of stately homes, some the former residence of families who planted the live oaks along Riverside Drive.
Belhaven’s only church was organized April 8, 1837 by the Rev. Peter Donan and four members: Mrs. Margaret E. Mayson, Mrs. Susan Patton, and Mr. and Mrs. John Robb. For two years there was only the pastor and the founding group but no deacons, elders nor individual house of worship until 1845.
The State of Mississippi owned large tracts of real estate in downtown Jackson and in the early 1800’s made land available to religious denominations in the vicinity of Smith Park. Several local churches located in this area and remain today but the Presbyterians felt preordained to exchange their tract for land at the northwest corner of State and Yazoo Streets. There they worshiped until relocating to 1390 N. State in August, 1951. The land on which the church rests today was owned by a group of developers in 1925. These were early Jacksonians S.S. Taylor, C.E. Klumb, S.K. Whitten, Jr., W.N. Watkins and H.V. Watkins. The group sold the land on December 4, 1925 to W.N. Cheney, R.S. Dobyns, Carl L. Faust, W.E. Guild and Stokes V. Robinson. The Pinehaven Realty Corporation purchased the property from this group for $12,700 on March 1, 1927. For much of the following 23 years the Pinehaven Realty Corporation maintained the land where the church stands today. A single dwelling and out building were shown on the 1925 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map. The majority of the land between Pinehurst and Belhaven Streets was vacant and remained so until purchased by the church on September 20, 1950. Prominent Belhaven resident Chalmers Alexander was instrumental in this transaction.
According to Jackson native Judge Swan Yerger, much of the north end of the 1300 block of North State was a field which served as a softball diamond for the older Power School boys who spent their recess and many hours after school on this diamond.
Two great accomplishments of First Presbyterian Church are its unwavering support of Belhaven University which ensured its survival and prosperity throughout many years and the establishment of the First Presbyterian Day School in 1965. Regardless of your religious persuasion, First Presbyterian Church is a cornerstone in our neighborhood. It draws young families to its day school, students to its chosen university and Christians to its message. In the words of John Calvin (1509-64), “Let us not cease to do the utmost so that we may incessantly go forward in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair of the smallness of our accomplishments.”
Jitney Jungle did not begin in Belhaven but it found a home here. W.B. McCarty and Jud and Henry Holman were cousins who came to Jackson from Greenwood and opened a small grocery in 1912 at the intersection of Adelle and Grayson (Lamar) Streets. They invested a borrowed $1,000 in their business and called it Jackson Mercantile Company. Through the teens and twenties of the 20th century the young men expanded their grocery businesses, even adopting a popular slogan “Save a nickel on a quarter”. According to Mr. Will McCarty, Bill McCarty, III’s grandfather, the owners were looking for a name a bit catchier than a mercantile company. Even the later McCarty-Holman Stores nomenclature was a bit prosaic. It was a habit of Judge V.J. Stricker who lived nearby to invite the three young merchants residing at Mrs. Josephine Bailey’s boarding house on Adelle Street to his home for Sunday dinner. The merchants asked Judge Stricker to suggest a new name for their stores.
The end of the First World War saw returning soldiers anxious to buy an old car for riding about town. They called it a “jitney”, slang for a London taxicab and street jargon for a nickel. Since a cab ride to town in Jackson as well as London cost a nickel the term “jitney” was popular and it was customary for patrons to shop with “nickels jingling in their pockets”. With the store’s slogan in mind and stock in the new stores looking like “a jungle of values”, the judge suggested the merchants rename their enterprises Jitney Jungle Stores. The first store under the new name was at 423 E. Capitol Street which opened April 19, 1919. Now you know.
The 1930 Jackson City Directory shows the birth of our neighborhood Jitney Jungle on Fortification in that year. It was the 14th store in the chain and its first manager was Charles Alford. The new store was small but was developed into a “super store” through a remodeling and a formal grand opening on November 10, 1933.
Mrs. Betty Edwards, daughter of co-founder William B. McCarty said that the Belhaven Jitney made a special point of catering to women. ”When you entered the store there was a platform area to the left for ladies to sit and visit before they shopped. A woman taught knitting and ladies could sit or read. It had the first female rest room in a Jackson grocery store. There were chairs for children and inexpensive house dresses for sale in racks near the front entrance.” Ladies from some of Jackson’s most distinguished families shopped regularly at Jitney 14. They included Mrs. Emmitt (Marie) Hull, Mrs. Fred Sullins, Mrs. James Canazaro, Mrs. R.E. Kennington, Miss Eudora Welty and Mrs. Percy Weeks, Willie Morris’ grandmother, who lived across Jefferson Street. Willie spoke of the store in his 1989 book Homecomings – A Return to Christmas Gone
The new Jitney was a Tudor revival style designed by Belhaven resident and architect Emmett Hull. It later became known as English Village containing the grocery and a new drugstore owned by Price Cain. The main entrance to the store faced Fortification Street. It was the second grocery in the United States and the first in Mississippi to have air conditioning. It contained a bakery, a refrigerated meat counter and a glass front delicatessen where the beloved “Mrs. Pitts” performed her pastry creations for a number of years.
Throughout the years Belhaven’s neighborhood Jitney Jungle continued to expand, modernize and enjoy commercial success until it was purchased by a northern conglomerate in March 1996. It was later bought out by Winn-Dixie and in 2005 by Greg and Kathy McDade. In 1996, the Jitney Jungle chain’s sales volume was $1.2 billion¬, quite a return on the $1,000 investment by three young entrepreneurs 84 years before.
Growing up we called them the “pink apartments”. The flamingo-colored complex spanning the eastern side of the 1200 block of Kenwood was constructed in 1938 by Jackson architect James T. (Jack) Canizaro. What makes these units unique today is the period they represent once providing homes for some of America’s greatest generation. In conversations with Mr. Jack’s son Bob, who lives in Evanston, IL, we learn that the architecture is Art Moderne, a style copied from homes in southern California. Bob Canizaro spoke not just of the residence built by his father, that he grew up in, but of the times themselves.
“Many tenants came and went in our apartment building. There was a Dutch couple, Colonel and Mrs. Von Oven, who lived there during World War II. He was in the Royal Dutch Air Force in training at Hawkins Field. The Dutch flyboys were notorious for their antics in downtown Jackson, often flying low down Capitol Street and waving at the girls in the high rise office buildings. A woman who worked for us heard a loud noise one day, looked out the kitchen door and saw the colonel flying down Kenwood Place.” No small wonder we won the war.
Mr. Canazaro spoke of other military personnel who lived in his family apartments. “I was fond of a tenant named McGehee. He and I were regulars at the old Jackson Senators baseball games. We were close to Dr. Estelle Maguira who lived in our middle apartment. After she left, William Fulton, former director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting moved in.”
Bob and I discussed the neighborhood around the apartments as it was back in the 1940’s. He remembers Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Wright, Fred and John Reimers, John Hanley Walsh, Robert Stockett, Kirby Walker, Guy Lowe, John Potter, Gilmer Spivey, Bernard Meltzer, Tupper and Doug Drane, Howard Shannon and many others. He spoke of Mrs. Downing’s kindergarten at Poplar and Jefferson, Power School, Stockett Stables, playing ball on the Reimers “back forty” where the Kennington Home was built. He told of rubber gun wars playing in the “big ditch” which is now Belhaven Park, catching lightning bugs in a bottle and going for ice cream and sodas at Shady Nook.
There were sights and sounds then which have faded into history: the lonely whine of the GM&O diesel locomotive, the starting whistle at the Buckeye Oil Mill, lawn mowers cutting grass for money to buy comic books at Cain’s drugstore, animal sounds from the far away Jackson Zoo and the early morning cries of street vendors as they plied their wares down Manship.
The Pink Apartments are filled now with new families and young moderns seeking their own place and dreams. I would hope as they stroll the sidewalks down to Poplar or up to McDade’s they will reflect on the art of Mr. Jack Canazaro, his legacy to our neighborhood, and the times in which he lived.
Jackson, like much of America, entered its golden years in the 1950’s. Far sighted mayors Leland Speed and Allen Thompson were rapidly building a city approaching a population of 100,000. The great war for democracy had been won and with bubble gum, cars, and affordable housing once again available there was no end to what a free people could do to ensure a prosperous future.
On the northern edge of the Belhaven neighborhood, Bailey Junior High School opened in1938; winning national awards for its architectural style developed by Hays Town. The State Medical Center held its first classes on the old Highway Patrol property in 1955. Ike was president, Governor Hugh White was balancing agriculture with industry in Mississippi and the lights did not go out on Jackson’s Capitol Street until long after midnight. Meanwhile, a skinny kid from Tupelo walked into a recording studio in Memphis and sang a song for his mother that changed the course of American popular music forever.
A one-story frame commercial building with a flat roof, home of the Overby Company, sits on 1808 North State. But like so many structures that have endured 90 years it wasn’t always so. It opened as North End Grocery in 1928, named for the northern terminus of the street car line, and served a number of small commercial enterprises before becoming North State Pharmacy in 1947. It was a typical drug store, owned by a Belhaven couple whose surviving widow wishes to remain anonymous. It was the place to go before and after classes at nearby Bailey for its soda fountain and pinball machine. I have to confess, I was there myself, quite often as a teenager, in the early 1950’s. Many years later I sat down with the lady who was the co-owner and she told me a story I will share with you.
In the middle 1950’s there was no interstate system around Jackson. Highway 51 ran down North State into downtown. A traveler going let’s say from Memphis to New Orleans had to pass by North State Pharmacy and Mr. Dixon’s Texaco Station next door. One spring day in 1956 someone did.
Elvis Presley once visited the Belhaven neighborhood. Not for long but forever. My friend smiles today in remembrance of all the things we were and while the drugstore never had a jukebox, it did serve a milkshake to the king of rock and roll. According to my friend a pink Cadillac pulled into the Texaco on a fine spring morning. The occupants were a singer and his band on their way to a performance south of the city. While the car was being serviced Elvis Presley and a couple of his band members walked into North State Pharmacy and Elvis ordered a milkshake. My friend recognized the singer but said nothing. She was too dignified to make a fool of herself and besides she was pregnant. But customers in the store knew what was going on and there was a mad dash for the pay phone. Elvis and his entourage did not linger. When the car was ready they moved on, but for the remainder of the day people flooded into the store wanting to know which booth Elvis sat in and how did he look.
Our next section will show how our neighborhood matured with expanded residential and commercial growth, a dynamic education system, increased medical facilities, a theater for the performing arts and a strong network of foundations and associations that would ensure its future.
© Bill and Nan Harvey