Trisha Yearwood is a newcomer to the country music cooking scene, which has proliferated ever since Kitty Wells put out Kitty Wells’ Country Kitchen Cookbook in 1964, followed by volumes II and III in the next thirty years.
Kenny Rogers, who was a pitchman for Dole Foods, put out a cookbook that has pineapples in everything. June Carter Cash’s Mother Maybelle’s Cookbook includes a scripture cake. Tammy Wynette put out her Southern Cookbook in 1994, the cook at Graceland, Alvena Ray included a peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich in her Fir for a King: the Elvis Presley Cookbook (1992), and Loretta Lynn has a recipe for Kentucky frog legs in You’re Cookin’ It Country (2004). Others include Hank Williams, Jr. (who has his own line of barbecue sauces), Dolly Parton (Dolly’s Dixie Fixin’s; “I cook like an old mountain woman.”), Naomi Judd (“healthy” recipes) and Zac Brown, whose Perfect Pocketknife Coleslaw gets a nod for a catchy name, but I can’t see making coleslaw with a pocketknife, no sir.
Then you have The Country Stars’ Cookbook (1977), compiled by Helen Naismith, a direct descendent of Dr. James Naismith, who we all remember as the man who invented basketball. Helen, “a petite food expert … and dynamic speaker”, managed to garner recipes from 85 country singers, groups, Opry stars and (I suspect) two or three of her own. Now, we all know that while Tammy Wynette could no doubt cook eggplant, Jerry Clower never baked a blueberry pie in his life and if Merle Haggard ever cooked catfish he was likely on the lam. You could probably buy mint copies of this piece of tomfoolery at every Stuckey’s in the nation for three dollars, but it’s fun to see how the talent and the recipes match up. Personally, I think assigning Ronnie Milsap a moonshine recipe just ain’t right.
Documentary photography has been an instrument for social reform since Jacob Riis, who focused the nation’s eyes on the grinding poverty of New York City slums in How the Other Half Lives (1880), inspiring the work of photographers who seek to depict history as well as comment on society. A branch of this genre, prison photography, is by nature dramatic and controversial, focusing on the human condition in confinement (at times awaiting execution) and though their ability to convey the reality of prison as opposed to the projected feelings of the viewer is dubious, the images are inevitably stark and gritty, grim and sullen.
Taking photos of Parchman Prison is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s a given that the results will be iconic on a documentary level. While it’s arguable that the cruelties and injustices at Parchman are no more heinous than in any other penal environment, this is after all Mississippi’s state prison and carries a particular notoriety for that singular reason. But with Rushing’s Parchman what we have is a failure to communicate; the photos are technically precise, yet without resonance, more substance than style and not edited to bring emotion. The lack of angles, of effective use of light, shadows and contrast is evident; often the quality is purely that of straight-on recording, which in most cases is lifeless and banal, with no finesse and less feeling. The inclusion of text from the subjects (albeit in the form of images) undermines an emphasis on the photographs themselves, leaving us with a definitive visual record of Parchman in the 1990s, which is nothing to deride in terms of an historical document, providing an appropriate companion volume to two significant books about Parchman that appeared in the 90s, Taylor’s Down on Parchman Farm (1993) and Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery (1996), but nothing to acclaim in terms of art.
This is University Press of Mississippi’s second foray into the field of prison photography; in 1997 it published Ken Light’s Texas Death Row, which followed on the heels of Light’s Delta Time (Smithsonian Institution Press; 1995). Yet even given the lack of effectiveness in the photographs, it’s reassuring that University Press of Mississippi is still on top of their game; though it has at times dropped the editorial ball, when it comes to putting together a quality product, University Press can and has given Rushing’s photos good framing.
To get to Flora, Mississippi, you drive north from Jackson between the teepee and Indian mound in Pocahontas and past the Petrified Forest into the rolling landscape of Madison County. Flora is somewhat off the main highway, a quiet little community that began as a whistle stop on the old Illinois Central line. As we drove, I couldn’t keep my mind off the fact that Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers; I later learned that the town was named after the wife of the man who donated the land for the railroad right-of-way, but the coincidence proved to be excruciating-ly apt.
The event I was attending was a plant swap, and not just any plant swap, but one that had been started 26 years before by the town librarian, Janice Watkins. Now, twenty-six years is a very long time for any community event in a town this size, and particularly impressive for something as offbeat as a plant swap, but Mrs. Watkins’ swap had endured, propagated by people from all walks of life from Flora and surrounding towns who had a love of growing and caring for plants. The people were (like me) older, most above forty, mostly female, but some men, and most seemed to know one another, but it wasn’t long before everyone was chatting up a storm.
The swap was held in the library’s community room; three long tables were set up before some seventy chairs set in close ranks. As the people filed in and signed the register, their plants were given a numbered stake and set on the table. Soon the tables as well as most of the seats were filled and the swap began. First, there were a few community announcements (“The PTA will be holding a bake sale…”), then one gentleman got up and told of some local restaurants the attendees might like (a pizza place, a burger joint, a Mexican cantina, and one place run by a chef who sold Kobe beef but also had a meat and three at lunch).
Then a gentleman got up, introduced Mrs. Watkins, who most everybody already knew, of course, now retired, but who still held the swap at the new library across the street from the old one in city hall. The man went on to tell how Mrs. Watkins was instrumental in getting the new library built, which for a small-town library was a very impressive facility indeed, with a kitchen, a community room, a courtyard and several open rooms filled with shelving and books. There was a moment of confusion before the door prizes were awarded when we realized none of us had been given numbers, but names were (often haltingly) read from the register, and the gardening gloves, boxes of Miracle-Gro, calendars, diaries, notebooks, huggies and other what-nots were awarded.
During this time, we’d all been scoping out the plants on the long table, and in all there were probably about seventy-five; some had decorative hangers and ribbons, some sported bits of paper with names taped to plastic spoons or forks. Before the hat with plant numbers was passed, we had plenty of time to cruise the tables and see the offerings, and some people talked about the plants they bought. I told the story about how my grandmother gave me a cutting for the beefsteak begonia I’d bought some thirty years ago; one lady told a rambling story about her late brother and a lavender Siberian iris that may or may not be an iris after all; and one particularly well-informed individual (there’s one in every crowd) shared the story of how jewels of Opar got its name from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, with Opar being another name for the lost continent of Atlantis (which may or may not be true).
And the names! In the eternal language of Flora herself the names, strung together, sounded like an incantation: begonia, hydrangea, sansevieria, ajuga, canna, sedum, crinum, ficus, vanilla plantifolia, firmiana, ruschia; then the folk names: milk and wine lily, Chinese parasol tree, orchid cactus, Mexican petunia, apostle plant, squirrel’s foot fern, pearl bush, mother of thousands, chicken gizzards and many others. Everyone seemed to have their eye on a particular plant; the little lady behind me really wanted a scraggly paw-paw someone had brought while I was jonesing for the chicken-foot cactus. In the end, she got a brown turkey fig, which she found adequate compensation, but I ended up with an anemic aloe that put me in mind of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.
Driving home on Joe Cocker Road east out of Pocahontas, I thought how the sort of people at Mrs. Watkins’ plant swap may not run out and buy the latest variety of zinnia or order dahlias the size of dinner plates online, but they are the grass-roots gardeners of our culture; these are the people who tend for the plants that thrive year after year, generation after generation with a modicum of care, the types of plants your granny grew, the kind you read about in Welty, Douglas and O’Connor. These people tend and pass along the gentle flame that inspires us to care for growing things, which is an act of devotion older than Ur. As for my scraggly little aloe, I will care for it and think of Flora.
I really wanted to like this book, I really did. I was hoping that Dees had matured since publishing Lies and Other Truths (Jefferson Press, Oxford; 2008) an ill-advised assortment of self-absorbed musings, and The Statue and the Fury (Nautilus Press, Oxford) does have an initial premise of objectivity, but this grounding proves to be nothing more than jumping-off point for another lengthy exercise in self-indulgence. The Statue and the Fury could well be described as a roman à clef with no need for a key, since the names come one after another rat-a-tat-tat like a perfunctory roll call of characters, encompassing everyone of note in Oxford during the late 1990s and many who are still there.
In reporting on the tempest in a teapot created over cutting a magnolia on the Oxford Square to make way for a statue, the only character that gets more play than Jim Dees is William Faulkner, said statue subject, who figures prominently on the cover in the company of Willie Nelson, James Meredith, and Myrlie Evers below a vermeil title in a clumsy Monty Python-esque montage. We shouldn’t find this depiction surprising, since Faulkner is Oxford’s most important asset aside from the University of Mississippi, and the others are of course Mississippi icons in their own right, even Willie. Dees goes so far as to share his thoughts on Faulkner’s works in a Catherine’s wheel of maritime metaphors, including, “I would direct first-time readers to the novellas in Go Down, Moses or the Snopes trilogy, or, to dip your toe gently in the Faulkner sea, page-turners like Intruder in the Dust or As I Lay Dying.” Not, perhaps, the most perceptive advice, but then Dees with uncharacteristic modesty admits that he is “not any kind of Faulkner know-it-all”. (Indeed.)
Dees can be engaging on air as well as in person (provided you’re not on the wrong side of his toxic wit), but while his writing displays a formidable command of the first person singular, its sardonic tone is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, even when describing events fraught with high comedy such as Pizza Bob on the witness stand. In short, the entire work concerns nothing more than a “You had to be there” sort of situation in a feeble attempt at gonzo journalism and the title is either an ill-advised tongue-in-cheek pun or a painfully fumbled riff on Faulkner (six of one, half a dozen of the other). Dees’ Lies and Other Truths as well as They Write Among Us (Jefferson Press, Oxford; 2003) to which he wrote the introduction, both sold out, and it’s certainly likely that unless an unrealistic number of copies were printed The Statue and the Fury will as well, particularly if everyone mentioned buys a copy.
By dint of his gig as host of “Thacker Mountain Radio”, which no less than Dees himself refers to as the “Grand Ole Opry of literature”, Dees has become a media figure. Given his unremarkable publishing history, what we’re left with in The Statue and the Fury is an example of marketing based on the appeal of personality; in a sense, buying Dees’ book is somewhat the Mississippi equivalent of buying that collection of Kim Kardashian’s selfies. If you are a fan of Jim Dees, you will certainly find this book worth every penny, and if you lived in Oxford during the ‘Nineties, even if you’re not mentioned, you might buy it, too, but sooner or later it’s bound to be available at your local library.
Among the first professional sports players from Calhoun County, Mississippi was a rangy lefty from Banner named James Corbett Edwards, most often called “Jim Joe” or “Little Joe” when he played major league baseball in the 1920s.
Edwards was born Dec. 14, 1894. He enlisted during World War I as a Marine, later joining the Navy, where he became a Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class. On March 25, 1920, Edwards, who was by that time enrolled at Mississippi College in Clinton, was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm by the Third Republic of France, the highest military honor of the French Government. Exceptionally heroic services must be rendered to entitle any person to receive this tribute. The Croix de Guerre with palm was issued to military units whose men performed heroic deeds in combat and were subsequently recognized by headquarters.
In the 1920s, baseball was easily the premiere sports activity in the nation, and while playing ball at Mississippi College Jim Joe caught the eye of professional scouts. According to Mike Christensen, author of the recently-released Of Mudcat, Boo, The Rope and Oil Can: An Informal History of Mississippians in Major League Baseball, “Edwards debuted with the Cleveland Indians on May 14, 1922, going five innings in a loss to the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. I think it’s interesting that other players in that game included Sam Rice, Goose Goslin and Bucky Harris of the Senators and Tris Speaker, Stuffy McInnis and Doc Evans, a Meridian native, for the Indians. Those are some famous names.”
Edwards batted right and threw left. He pitched in 10 games for the Indians, and had a 4-3 record and a 2.84 ERA. After 13 games and an ERA of 8.25 the following season, he was released and picked up by the Chicago White Sox, pitching in nine games towards the end of the season. He spent the 1926 season with the White Sox, and had a 6-9 record and a 4.18 ERA in 32 games, 16 of them starts. In 1927 he had his first taste of minor league baseball and spent the year with the Seattle Indians. In 41 games for them, he had a 20-17 record and a 3.36 ERA. The following season he had a 1-8 record and a 3.14 ERA in ten games. The Cincinnati Reds signed him to a contract during part of the 1928 season, and in his last season in the majors, he had a 2-2 record and a 7.59 ERA in 18 appearances. He then spent four more seasons in the minor leagues to end his professional career. In a six-season career, Jim Joe posted a 26–37 record with 211 strikeouts and a 4.37 ERA in 145 appearances, including 59 starts, 23 complete games, six shutouts, four saves, and 584 ⅓ innings of work.
After his career in baseball, Edwards was postmaster at Banner before moving to Pontotoc. While there he was postmaster for a short while before retiring as a mail carrier. He was also a teacher and football coach. He died in Sarepta, Mississippi on January 19, 1965 at the age of 70 from a car accident.
This is an excerpt from Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, written by his step-son Malcolm Franklin and published in an exclusive edition by The Society for the Study of Traditional Culture in 1977. Franklin is a capable story-teller himself.
One of the most frequent questions that people ask me about Faulkner is about his writing routine and writing habits. Pappy really had no set routine. He worked in an apparently erratic manner. I do know one very important fact. He never carried a notebook or made any notes. He did not at any time carry a pencil or paper. He seemed to work largely from memory and observation.
He had a small portable typewriter that was presented to him by an old sailing friend, Jim Devine, whom he had known in New York in the late twenties. To this very day it remains in what is now known as Pappy’s Office at Rowan Oak. I always associate it with Pappy’s noisy periods, the ones that let us all know Pappy was at work. During what we referred to as his silent days, he used pen and ink. On such days you could not be sure whether he was writing or not. It was all very quiet. No telephone, no radio and no doorbell! These were forbidden items. All you could hear were the sounds from the woods beyond the formal gardens and the barnyard. The dogs would bark. A rooster who had lost the time of day might unexpectedly crow. Cows would occasionally let out a low moo reminding those in charge that milking time was near. Otherwise, only silence; for we were too far from the road and out of the way for the sounds of traffic to interfere.
Then there would be the times I would see Pappy walking along the driveway, perhaps headed for a walk down Old Taylor Road, in the direction of Thacker’s Mountain, some six miles away. It was not out of the ordinary for Pappy to cover the distance between Thacker’s Mountain and back in one afternoon. Quite often I would go along, riding the small quarter horse that Pappy had given me, Dan Patch. Pappy, of course, walked through the woods, and by the time I reached Thacker’s Mountain by the road, there would be Pappy sitting on top of one of the large boulders, perfectly still, not saying a word. I would ask, “Pappy, would you like to ride Dan Patch back and let me walk?” “No,” he would always answer, preferring to go through the woods rather than by the road. Upon returning to Rowan Oak he would not say a word. Instead he would go straight to the library, or to his bedroom, where he had a small writing table. And then you would know he was writing. Even in the silence.
Another trait of his which took him outdoors but was still connected with his writing was squirrel hunting. Every fall, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and often on weekday afternoons, too, Pappy and I would hunt squirrels—always at least one mile from Rowan Oak. The squirrel we were after in particular was the fox squirrel. Unlike the ordinary gray squirrel, who carelessly slits about, the fox squirrel demands great patience from the hunter, for he will sit perched motionless on a limb for long intervals at a time. The hunter must outsit the fox squirrel. If he waits long enough, in absolute silence, the squirrel will show himself in a vulnerable position. It was during these long periods of utter silence that I believe Pappy did a great deal of his thinking about the plots and characters he was writing about. He never said anything about it. However, many times when we arrived back at Rowan Oak he would say to me, “Buddy, would you dress out my squirrels? Or have Broadus dress them out for me?” I would reply, “Certainly, Pappy,” and then he would disappear, and I would hear the typewriter going for the rest of the morning. Other times he would come on back and dress out the squirrels with me.
We would never have more than two or three each at the most. Pappy brought me up never to kill more than we would need. Further, to make our stay in the woods longer and more of a sport, Pappy and I had a pact where we would only shoot for the head. We kept an old tin tobacco box with a slit in the top. Either of us who hit a squirrel anywhere but the head had to put a quarter in the tobacco box. When it was full, we bought a bottle of bourbon with it. Preferably Jack Daniel’s. Despite the fact that there have been many stories told about Faulkner’s drinking habits, including the statement, in many cases, that he was an alcoholic, he was not. It is a fact that he was a hard drinker. But only on occasion. And during a period of twenty-five or more years of close association, I never observed Faulkner’s drinking heavily while he was actively writing.
Faulkner gave a well-deserved reply to columnist Betty Beale of The Washington Star, whose society gossip column was widely read. She asked for the largest number of words he had penned on one day. His answer, printed in the June 14, 1954 column, clearly showed his attitude when he was asked a stupid question He gave an absurd answer: That he had climbed to the crib of the barn one morning with his paper, pencil and a quart of whiskey, and pulled the ladder up behind him; when daylight began to fail, he realized he had torn off five thousand words. In our barn at Rowan Oak there was no crib overhead—only a hay loft with no retractable ladder.
When he had completed a particularly long and involved piece of writing he would take a Sabbatical, indulging heavily in his favorite bourbon. Perhaps it might last a month or six weeks. Quite often the last week of his binge I would spend driving him around Lafayette, Marshall, Yalobusha and Panola Counties. In the summertime we would drive in my jeep. In the wintertime the excursions would take place in a closed car. He would sit there in the front seat, viewing the countryside. But sometimes he would carry on a very animated conversation with me in which he showed his love for and knowledge of that section of North Mississippi. He would point out places he had drawn on for certain incidents in his books or stories. Thus, I know exactly the location of As I Lay Dying, which is southeast of Oxford on the south side of the Yocona River. The location of one of his best stories, “The Hound”, is northeast of Oxford in the Tallahatchie River bottom, in a locality known as Riverside. On one long drive we made together in my jeep, he said, “This is where ‘The Bear’ took place.” We were passing through the old Stone place, between the Sunflower and Tallahatchie Rivers, some seventeen miles southwest of the old river town known as Panola, situated a few miles north of Batesville in Panola County. It was in the late fall, I believe, and we had been hunting at Mr. Bob Carrier’s plantation, where Pappy took Clark Gable to hunt once in the late 1930s.
On our return trip to Rowan Oak that evening, we travelled along an old, dusty road. Cotton stood on either side of the road, but much shorter and scrawnier than that we had passed earlier, around Batesville and Clarksdale in the Delta country. Pappy had noted there that some of the cotton had been picked by hand, some by machine—this was one of the earliest occasions, if not the earliest, that we had seen machine-picked cotton fields. Now from the road we could glimpse the tops of the trees in the river bottom beyond the fields—just a faint outline against the fast fading evening. From Pappy’s silence I realized, as we had rolled along this country road, that he was headed towards his typewriter again, and that soon I would be hearing once more the tap-tap sounds that so often penetrated the quiet darkness of Rowan Oak at odd hours during the night.
Tilmon Henry Smith, son of Tilmon Holley and Fannie Hawkins Smith, was born in 1883 in Water Valley, Mississippi, and received his M.D. from the University of Tennessee in 1915. He began practicing medicine in Banner, Mississippi in 1915. He moved to New London, Ohio in 1922 where he remained until his death in 1969. His memoir, Home to the Flowers was published privately in 1964.
When Smith was six, the family moved to Pittsboro, where his father was postmaster before becoming pastor of a church in Ellzey, where they built a home he remembers his mother surrounded with flowers, particularly roses. Young Smith attended the school there, which was established by brothers W.T. and B.G. Lowery and T.C. Lowery, who later founded Blue Mountain College. When still a boy, he and his brother started a brick manufacturing business and built the J.D. Richards store in Vardaman, which is still standing. Smith moved to Vardaman in 1901 after his father’s death. He was still in the brick business, but he also worked on Mississippi river barges and as a logger in Yazoo County to help support the family. He attended Meridian Medical College, and graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School after a short stint in the Chicago School of Medicine. He served as the health inspector for Calhoun County throughout World War I and beyond His book recounts the struggles of the people of Calhoun in the early decades of the 20th century against typhoid and the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918.
One must realize the primitiveness of our existence to understand. These people had no indoor water supply or toilet facilities. Water was secured from a well in the yard, or a spring or a creed–often a quarter of a mile away. Toilet facilities were at best an outdoor privy in the back yard. Many times during this period, my first duty upon arriving arriving at the patient’s home was to bring buckets of water from the spring and remove the offal from another bucket beside the bed.
This time of trial and ordeal gave me an abiding faith in people. They exhibited gallantry far beyond the call of duty. Some people had a mysterious resistance to the flue germ. A dozen people would be stricken down around them and they would nurse and care for them all. When this group was reasonably comfortable and cared for, they would walk to miles to minister to other friends or relatives who had no well person to look after them. Some people cut and ran. They used all sorts of low excuses, but it cane down to the fact that they were overwhelmed by the solid fear of death. I was continuously amazed by those who really had the sand, as well as those who did not. There were so many heroes and heroines in this terrible tragedy that all cannot possibly be mentioned, but some of my expected friends let me and themselves down, as well as their dependents. I do not remember this with bitterness or condemnation, but with pity.
During the epidemic the community drunk, faced with adversity, found himself and became one of the noblest men of my acquaintance. He sobered up for the first time in years and walked the roads giving help to all in need. It was not unusual to find him carrying wter to the sick in one community, and a day later he would be ten miles away cutting wood to warm another family, both of which had probably ignored him in the past. It was just as astounding to find a logging camp “lady of the evening” bending over the sickbed, tending the sick with all the tenderness of a Florence Nightingale. My dear old mother always referred to her in a disdainful manner as a “scarlet woman”. I thanked God for this scarlet woman, and learned again that nobility of the soul is sometimes lodged in strange places.
The most evocative personal memoir to come out of Calhoun County, Mississippi, Home to the Flowers is described as an “anecdotal history” in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967, and it is certainly filled with folksy anecdotes, some of them quite earthy, but Smith’s account of his life in Calhoun County during the first two decades of the 20th century is also at times lyrical, by turns poignant and filled with the sorts of details of life in a quasi-frontier setting that a man of acumen and education such as Smith could provide.
Well before the market deli opens at seven sharp the smell of chicken frying and biscuits baking drifts outside over people waiting for the doors to open. Always among them is a small group of older men who convene in the brief seating area after the end counter, four or five, I’m uncertain of the exact number, probably having a little breakfast, but they assemble more for coffee and company, sitting and watching the passing traffic on the street and sidewalk, joking and laughing, often debating, but always together until the deli readies for lunch, when they line up outside under the eaves of the building before going their separate ways. They remind me of the old men I saw as a child playing dominoes at the local pool hall, steadfast in their thorough knowledge of one another, comforted by the company and secure in their deliberated decisions on the state of the world. In time their numbers will lessen and their gatherings end, but it’s certain that another such group will come to sit, laugh, argue and watch the world pass by. Perhaps I’ll be among them.
The deli is to the left as you enter, right past the first checkout behind a case that stretches some forty feet down five aisles. First are the cakes and pies, then cold salads and cold meats followed by a line of steam tables. Most of the people who enter after the doors open are on their way to work, picking up something for the office—flowers, cupcakes or a cake perhaps, for some coworker’s birthday or donuts for everyone on no special occasion—then you have those who drop by the deli for breakfast to go, just a biscuit with bacon or toast and eggs, but the deli always offers a groaning board. Fried chicken is the only constant staple throughout the day, an impressive heap of breasts, thighs, legs and wings that occupies the first pan in the steam table, followed in the breakfast line by the eggs. The deli serves two kinds of grits, plain ole grits and cheese grits, both in generous helpings. Fried potato wedges and chicken tenders are often offered, but rice is always on the breakfast menu, which might seem odd to some, but when I asked, one of the ladies explained that many people prefer them to grits, since the rice (to those customers) goes well with sawmill gravy, a milk gravy with crumbled sausage. Three kinds of sausages (smoked, link and patty), broiled bacon and salmon patties are the usual meat options; buttermilk and honey biscuits, white and wheat toast round out the morning buffet.
Southerners of all stripes like hearty breakfasts, and the deli makes every effort to provide in abundance. I remember a time when at the end of the line they would have an iced tub on the corner with small containers of milk beside a basket of breakfast cereals, Rice Krispies, Sugar Pops, Corn Flakes or Frosted Flakes, but no longer. I also seem to remember oatmeal on the steam table, but that was proved to be a passing fancy as well as the bowl of bananas, apples and oranges near the deli checkout register. The steadily diminishing sector of my soul that still holds some faith in the basically benevolent intentions of mankind likes to believe that the management of the market initiated these novelties in order to promote a healthier menu for their customers, but my ever-burgeoning lack of faith in man’s goodness towards his fellow tends to hold that expired stores of oatmeal and breakfast cereal (if not dairy products and produce) were most likely the motive. Either way, none of these purportedly healthy innovations seem to have been missed at all.
Standing in line beside someone at the deli has nothing of the impersonal nature of standing in line behind people in a fast-food joint. You can actually look at one another and talk, and the banter is continual and friendly. Our deli serves people from all walks of life. This eqality comes in part from its location near a key intersection in Jackson as well as from its casual walk-through character, but it’s the food that matters, and while the offerings do have a solid blue-collar slant, you’ll find the well-heeled legislator or Junior Leaguer there getting a serving of grits right after someone in a pair of boots taking a morning break snagging a sausage and biscuit (or three). Simply being in line for a serving of peach cobbler is a lesson in social niceties, and those rules are rarely broken. Oh, you’ll occasionally follow someone on a cell phone ordering lunch for three people in her office (excluding them), so she has to go through the menu a couple of times and deal with sorting out the portions and options, but welcome to the digital age. The prices are just as democratic: fifty cents for a biscuit, six ninety-nine for a hearty plate lunch, with endless options in between.
The lunches are lucullian, and any restaurateur would envy their traffic. Lunch officially opens at eleven, but even before ten-thirty when the steam tables are being loaded, the line has begun to form. Fried and baked chicken, meat loaf with red gravy, pork chops breaded and smothered, chicken and dumplings, chicken pot pie, chili mac and cheese, spaghetti with meatballs, barbecued ribs and chicken, beef stew and fried fish make their appearance in the line on a rotating basis every week, often twice in any given week. Two types of variety meats are on the menu: stewed chicken gizzards, which are outstanding, and braised liver with onions, equally as good. The roast turkey with vegetables served in brown gravy is practically indistinguishable from beef. The various vegetables ( including peas and snaps, a definitive Deep South dish, butter beans and limas, green beans, creamed potatoes and candied sweet potatoes) are cooked and held on the line for a very long time, and the longer in the heat, the better they become. Dressing (without chicken), mac and cheese and rice with broccoli and cheese are “vegetable” choices as well. Rolls, Mexican and regular corn muffins, sometimes corn sticks come with the plate, and baked cobblers are the usual dessert fare.
No, you cannot order a sandwich, and if you order sliced meat or cheese during the lunch rush, you’re going to get dirty looks from the other customers, since it takes the entire staff to keep the line going, and one leaving the line slows it down. If you want a sandwich or a salad, you’ll find them pre-made in the refrigerated case between the deli and the main aisles of the store. There you’ll find containers (3 sizes) of their pimento and cheese, which is justly renowned throughout the neighborhood, though it is rather pricey ($6.99 lb.), as valued commodities tend to be the world over. This case also holds what you might consider “true” deli offerings, such as hummus, salsas, pickled vegetables and small portions of cheeses.
You’ll not find what are these days called artisan foods in the market deli; the foods are decidedly pedestrian (in the most literal sense of the word). No doubt there are many food faddists and culinary snobs in the city who will deride such fare, and they do so not because the deli’s food isn’t good, but because they feel it’s beneath their dignity not only to eat such common fare but to engage in social commerce with the people who do. These are the same people mind you who will watch Food Network gurus such as Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmerman and others seek out people who routinely cook and eat the foods that feed the people of the streets and urban neighborhoods of other cities across the globe. On top of that odious variety of elitism, you have professionals in the restaurant industry itself who seek out such foods in order to upgrade them into a dish that people will pay top dollar for in their own ritzy establishments. As proof of this, I submit to you the recent craze over pork belly, which is about as far from eating high on the hog as you can get, that has become a staple in upscale restaurants across the country in the past decade or so. While pork bellies might be on their way out as a culinary trend, who can say that the next hot item might not be the smoked imitation sausage you find frozen in brilliant scarlet ropes in the market’s frozen meat section, sausages that occasionally find their way into a steam pan with kidney beans on the deli line?
While the deli staff usually doesn’t give away trade secrets (after three years of asking, they still won’t tell me what they put on their baked chicken and you can forget about getting their pimento and cheese recipe), one cook did tell me how to make peas and snaps as they do: but I’m not telling either.