Play It Again, Boys!

Buried deep in my album is a photograph from the hot summer of 1979, of the boys playing music on a flatbed trailer. We appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, going for the big $100 purse in the band contest on the Oxford square. Old John Bradley is thumping the stand-up bass; Mr. Cragin Knox frails the banjo. Randy Cross, staring off into the flaw- less summer sky, is on rhythm guitar; the immortal L. W. Thomas is playing lead; and I am sawing on the fiddle.

Our faces are solemn masks, the de rigueur expression of the old-time string band. WOOR Radio is flashing us out over the airwaves; the shirt- sleeved judges lean on their elbows; and in the foreground Mr. Jack Cofield himself is snapping our picture as if we were very big dogs indeed. It is a satisfying image, for it fails to mention that we were not big dogs at all but mere dabblers in the music trade. Moreover, it omits the dubious harmonies we sent aloft that day to the old arched windows of city hall.

And to look at it you would never guess, any more than the “bored judges” or the listeners scattered on the green, that our faces-so cool, so self-possessed-are in fact rigid with fear, and in our hearts a secret voice bargains with God to only let us live through this set and we would never, never, never play in public again.

What, then, were we doing there? It was a question we often asked our-selves when the pressure, largely self-induced, was on. It was not really all that bad, playing music-we had our good days, even a triumph now and then. But there was always the suspicion that sooner or later the People Out Front would rise up in their scorn and drive us from the stage. hey never did, of course, and we lurked on the fringes of the business for years.

We were known by picturesque names-The Waterford Road, The Eighth of January, The Horse Stealers. Friends came and went: Uncle Frank Childrey and his Gibson mandolin; Gathal Runnells, a great fiddler; young Les Kerr and Mike Burduck, a fine bass player. We played all around, turning up like rented palms at parties and banquets and wedding receptions, even at wine-and-cheese affairs where our repertoire nearly always clashed with the decor. We worked the Watermelon Festivals in Water Valley, the Faulkner Conferences in Oxford, and Ole Miss pep rallies.

And always there were the taverns: Abbey’s Irish Rose, Cajun Fred’s, The Warehouse; all gone now but lively enough places once upon a time. In the taverns we met all the usual roadhouse foolishness. People grabbed at our microphones and spilled beer on our instruments. Combatants arrived at our feet in a spray of broken glass. It was a rare show that we didn’t get 10 requests for “Rocky Top,” a song we all hated and couldn’t play very well anyway.

But in our travels, we knew also the good bright sun, the faces of friends, pretty girls dancing, free drinks, and the smell of barbecue in the air. It was a colorful pastime, and there was nothing quite like walking into a job with an instrument case and having the public mistake you for a musician.

We fooled them for a long time, though we never amounted to much more than a bunch of boys playing music on a flatbed truck. We had none of the professional apparatus, like matching shirts or our own sound equipment, and our showmanship was… elemental, you might say (“Now it’s time for the boys to innerduce themselves,” L. W. would announce, “and we would turn and nod and shake hands with each other, and sometimes the People would get it and sometimes they wouldn’t.)

Yet in time we gained, to our everlasting astonishment, a following. Not just our girlfriends and cronies, understand, but people we never knew before. To the Ole Miss students we were a novelty beyond words, to the older folks perhaps the half-remembered voice of a simpler time. And in spite of our fears none of them ever seemed to care if we were very slick or not, if we broke strings or forgot the words. All they wanted was a joyful noise, and we could give them that. Through the old songs, we touched something solid and authentic in the heart that all of them could recognize, even if they didn’t know why.

And for ourselves – when we were rolling along and hanging on to the steady thumping of the bass, we were in high cotton indeed. So in the end it was worth it, and if we had to ask what we were doing up there, we need look no further than the music for an answer. We would do it all again, I think. And when the house lights came on for the last time, and the boys closed their cases and went away into the world, they took with them a long memory, and the old songs – to be broken out in the parlor now and then, or suddenly remembered in the ruin of night. And in my album the boys are captured forever, having a bad day but trying to do their best just the same.

We won the $100, by the way-not for being top band in the contest, but for being the only one to sign up. “That’s show biz,” as the feller said. –Howard Bahr

Magic Pie

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

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

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

 

The Celluloid Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Rose Sausage Delivery

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

Michael Newton with a batch of Red Rose Sausage

Keepers of the House

In the summer of 1855, Miss Anna Sheegog died upstairs in the house in which I write. No token of hers remains, not even a hair ribbon; the grief at her passing was eased and forgotten long ago. Yet she is still fooling around up there, after al this time, and no wonder—she was only 16 and not ready to be done with life.

Something is always stirring in old houses, for they murmur in their sleep as people do. So much happens, and none of it wants to leave; it is laid up in the walls, left to leak out now and then when someone is listening. Ghosts, we call it, though it is really only memory. I have listened here—in all weathers, in the bright noon and deep watches of the night—longer than Miss Anna was alive, and I know something of the memory of houses.

This one is called Rowan Oak, for Mr. William Faulkner called it that, and he lived here longer than anybody. Because he lived here it is a literary shrine of sorts; for 20-odd years pilgrims have been coming up the walk to see what lies in the white house.

I, too, was a pilgrim once, come by a long road begun in a railroad yard. One night a switchman, Frank Smith, pressed on me a book, of all things, a paperback, greasy and bent to the shape of his blue jeans pocket. “Read this,” he said. In the yard office after the train was gone, I opened it and began to read, and the world was never the same again.

Years later, when I was curator of Mr. William Faulkner’s house, I happened on a page of manuscript behind a drawer in the library. I knew right away what it was; lines from The Hamlet, written in this very house. It was no small thing to meet, and as the morning light fell through the tall library windows, I remembered another light; the glow of Frank Smith’s lantern on that vanished summer night, when he put his copy of The Hamlet in my hand.

Ghosts again, and, always, time. In Mr. Faulkner’s house, time is the sum of all senses. It is in the light, in all seasons softened to twilight by the trees. Time lies in the creak of a shutter, rain in the downspouts, in a step half-heard in the empty rooms above. It is in the very smell of the place, which is the smell of all grandmother’s houses, made of dust and mildew, old books and years of fried chicken—and that almost palpable memory that will not go away. It is the smell of time.

No wonder pilgrims sometimes speak in whispers here. No wonder children often cling shyly to their parents’ legs, flirting with something only they can see. Time conjures them all, as it conjures us, who are stewards of time.

There have not been many of us. Dr. James Webb, the first and best curator, will always be chief. In the early years Dr. George Street was here, and Bev Smith. I have worked with Danny Toma, Terrell Lewis, Keith Fudge. Winfred Ragland was the first groundskeeper, and then Isiah McGuirt, whom I watched rake the leaves of 15 autumns.

These were all Southern men who knew not just Mr. Faulkner and his work, but also what it means to love an old house and earth whence it came. They were all pilgrims, come here by their own long roads, each to find his own doorway to the past.

Once, on one of those days when the sky is deep blue and every leaf sharp and clear and shadows haunt the fence corners—once, on such a day, Isaiah walked out in the north pasture to work his turnips and Dany went along to swap lies. I wandered out by myself by and by and leaned on the fence and watched them. On the whole place there were only three of us. Their voices drifted to me across the morning. Now and then, an acorn rattled on the tin roof of the cookhouse, the loft door creaked, the house drowsed white and solid in the sun.

I should not have been surprised to find Mr. Faulkner at my elbow, leaning on the fence with his pipe, nor to see Miss Anna in the kitchen door—for the streams of time had come together once more, the old proper rhythms of life were in cadence, and all that ever happened on this place narrowed to an old man and a boy in the pasture, talking quietly under the autumn sky.

Occasionally, folks ask me what it is like to work at Rowan Oak. I do not know how to tell them about Frank Smith or Dr. Webb or Danny or the day Isiah went out to hoe his greens, but sometimes I try, and they are almost always satisfied. It is a good thing for pilgrims to carry away into the world waiting for them beyond the gate, for in that world ghosts are silly and magic is only for children. I don’t believe so myself, and neither does Miss Anna—but then, she is only 16, after all.

Novelist and scholar Howard Bahr lives in Jackson, Mississippi

Of Food and Fellowship

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.[5] 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.”

Didion in Dixie

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.

An Afternoon with Stan and Joan

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.

Torgerson photo courtesy of Ole Miss Sports

Bourdain’s Last Salute Honors Mississippian

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)”.

Mitcham in Manhattan

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.