Savoring Sansing

David Sansing gave me hell when I was at Ole Miss. It didn’t help that he knew my parents and probably assumed it part and parcel of his consideration of them to single out their wayward son for what he doubtless considered the academic equivalent of “tough love”, but no matter how attentive I was in class or how good my grades, I always felt targeted for seemingly innocuous but loaded questions that ended up with a subtle and solemn sort of tsk-tsking.

As time went on, I realized I wasn’t the only slacker he picked on; in retrospect, I think Sansing considered it his God-given duty to inspire every student he taught with a profound respect for the Muse of Mississippi History (bless her tattered soul). He is a marvelous teacher. What made Sansing even more formidable in the classroom is his leonine demeanor, the high, noble brow framed by curling swept-back hair; he is the very picture of an academic, moreover one who if he should ask you what the Black and Tan Convention was, and you respond that it was a craft beer festival, you likely won’t live to tell of it.

The title essay confirms Sansings command of his subject in sturdy prose that crackles with authority and sets forth his theme: “Poverty and prejudice and illiteracy have kept Mississippi back, and backwards, but The Other Mississippians have battled poverty and prejudice throughout our history. And for every Mississippi politician who has shamed its name, there have been others to make it proud.” And in the initial passage of “History of Northern Mississippi” Sansing describes the singular mystique of the state he loves:

Any standard historical atlas of the United States will indicate to the most casual observer that there is a political and geographic subdivision designated Mississippi. There are fifty such subdivisions, and collectively they constitute the United States. However, Mississippi is not just a state of the Union. It is a state of mind; it is more than a constituency, it is a condition.”

“History of Northern Mississippi” was presented as the opening lecture at the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference in 1974, and I find it germane that Sansing’s dissertation at Mississippi College (1959) was “A History of Calhoun County, Mississippi”. “History of Northern Mississippi”, along with the later essay “Professor B.L.C. Wailes: A Forgotten Man of the Old South” represent two of the finest examples of historical writing to be found in our literature, a subject that also comes under Sansing’s expansive attention along with the Meredith Crisis, the Mississippi state flag, the University of Mississippi and tributes to the likes of L.Q.C. Lamar, Arch Dalrymple III, John Leslie, Bill and Carroll Waller, Professor Guyton and others.

Former students will delight in hearing Dr. Sansing’s voice thundering off the pages and students of Mississippi history across the globe would be tragically remiss if this entertaining, edifying and authoritative work doesn’t find a place on their bookshelf. You will find yourself picking up David Sansing’s The Other Mississippi again and again for great writing and heartfelt history.

Pimento Cheese Pizza

While most all of us eat pimento cheese year-round on some type of bread, likely its eaten cold as a spread, a snack or a light lunch item. This recipe brings pimento cheese into football season and beyond not only as a great party recipe, but also as a cold night nosh for a family.

You can use a prepared pizza crust, but I implore you to learn how to make a simple pizza crust; it’s not hard at all, and there are dozens of recipes available using nothing more than flour, yeast, water and olive oil. With a homemade crust, you can adjust the thickness to your tastes and add whatever herbs and cheeses you like to it instead of what some dingbat in a test kitchen thinks you like. Using a homemade crust, roll out your dough—I like mine on the thin side—and crimp the edges. Cover the crust with thin slices of tomato that have been drained between paper towels; slice tomatoes, place between layers of paper towels and press to leach out seeds and jelly. Dust the tomato layer with grated Parmesan cheese and a bit of that ubiquitous Italian seasoning blend.

As to the pimento and cheese, friends and neighbors, I wish I could tell you that you can use store-bought or even your homemade recipe, but if you do, you’re going to end up with a greasy, runny mess because the mayonnaise will separate in the oven. Instead, toss mild grated cheddar with drained diced pimentos—I dice the roasted red peppers you can buy in a jar—diced white onions and shaved ham. Yes, you can use bacon but make sure it’s lean. I wouldn’t range too far afield in toppings—no anchovies!—but it’s your pizza, and you can put any damn thing you want on it. Spread pimento cheese mixture over the tomatoes, dust with Parmesan and bake on the middle rack of a very hot oven (450) for about 15 minutes.

Hosford’s Apple Cookies

While digging a well for Mrs. Mary Allison, a widow from New Orleans who moved to Way, Mississippi in 1899, Parson Hargon discovered a plentiful source of mineral water, and in time a popular resort named Allison’s Wells grew up around the spring. Initially offering only medicinal baths and drinks (and those for men only), the spa eventually added a hotel and restaurant (La Font) with a grand ballroom that in time also hosted the Mississippi Art Colony. Allison’s Wells was destroyed by fire in 1963

In 1981, proprietor Hosford Fontaine—doubtless at the urgings of countless friends—published Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, a treasure-trove of history, profiles of the people who kept the resort functioning as well as other unforgettable characters, musicians and of course artists such as Till Caldwell, Inez Wallace, Ted Faires, Marie Hull and others. Many of these people contributed to the illustrations which are augmented by dozens of charming vintage photos including a poignant image of Hosford standing amid the charred ruins. But best of all—from my standpoint in the kitchen—The Last Mississippi Spa also includes a sprawling section on recipes for almost anything to put on the table: hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, dressings, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables, breakfast and brunch dishes, desserts, candy and cookies, all “tried and true” from the La Font kitchens.

You don’t see many Southern apple cookie recipes; a quick scan of Southern Sideboards, Bayou Cuisine, River Road Recipes, Vintage Vicksburg, Gourmet of the Delta, The Jackson Cookbook and The Mississippi Cookbook turned up nary a one. Though the South has a native crab apple, the Old World apple species that produce what Emerson called “the American fruit” simply don’t do well in our climate and fruit from those that do are most often dried or made into pies or sauce. As to the kind of apples to use, that’s up to you. I used Galas because they’re pretty.

The original recipe calls for a cup of margarine, but I’ve substituted butter because it just flat-out tastes better. I suspect Hosford used margarine for the sake of economy, but then a lot of women of her generation used margarine because it was considered upscale, being “store bought” and all. I used white raisins because you’ll find different shades of fruit in a box of white raisins while others are uniformly dark, and I used pecans because they go so well with apples in any recipe.

About 3 apples, enough to make 3 cups of fine unpeeled dice; (use only pieces with skin so that when baked they’ll stay somewhat firm)
2 sticks butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
A half teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg and salt
2 cups rolled oats
¼ cup white raisins
¼ cup chopped pecans (or nuts of your choice)

Cream butter and sugars well, add eggs and flour mixed and sifted with spices and baking powder, then stir in apples, oats and nuts. Refrigerate dough for about 30 minutes, stirring once. Form dough into ping pong balls, and bake on a lightly oiled cookie sheet with parchment paper at 350 or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack.This recipe makes about three dozen wonderful, chewy, sticky cookies.

The Lost Art of Farish Street

These images were captured over a decade ago, and the work itself couldn’t have been done much over two years before. I’ve not been down to Farish on foot for some time now, but I suspect most of these are long gone from any given number of factors, primarily weather. As to who painted them, I have no clue. Some seem to be by the same hand or set of hands, others don’t fit at all. While you may find them amateurish or puerile, when I first saw them  they seemed brilliant and exotic, bringing to life that sad and lonely street.

Vanilla Lemonade

An elegant riff on an eternal favorite, vanilla lemonade adds a gracious touch to any summer soiree, the perfect companion for a plate of ginger snaps or sugar cookies. If you’re already accustomed to making lemonade properly, with a simple syrup rather than raw granulated sugar, then it’s nothing more than a simple variant. And according to correspondent Dan Vimes, the addition of Cat Head vodka doesn’t diminish the subtle flavor and enhances its consumption.

Combine one cup white sugar and one cup water in a small saucepan along with the sliced peel of one lemon (juice the lemon first, then pare the peel). Bring to a quick boil, just enough to dissolve the sugar, then reduce the heat, add a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract and let it simmer for several minutes. If you can get them, two vanilla beans can be used instead, in which case you will have to strain the syrup, but it’s well worth the effort. Add this syrup to six cups of water along with about a cup of fresh strained lemon juice or to taste and keep in a sealed container until ready to pour over ice and serve.

Muscadine Or Scuppernong?

It’s late summer; the exhausting heat lingering and September’s drought is setting in, but on a bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets. These aubergine and bronzy green globes are a little bit pricey, often going for as much as $5 (but usually more like $3) a quart, but to me they’re worth it. These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy–but when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor.

North America has two native grape species, Vitis labrusa, often called the fox or possum grape, and Vitis roundifolia, which most people call a muscadine. While the wild fruit of both species is edible, the fruit of cultivated varieties of vastly superior. Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet and best used as an aperitif or digestif. The name muscadine comes from its similarity to early settlers with the Muscat grape, a Mediterranean type used in making muscatel, both words deriving from the musky scent of the fruit.

Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black or purple and the bronze. “Scuppernong” is the name of the first muscadine cultivar, a cultivar being a variety of plant that is created or selected for cultivation. This “white” (most types are a light greenish) was so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Interestingly (and surprisingly) the original mother vine is still on Roanoke Island, where it has been growing and producing for several hundred years. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety of muscadines, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any bronze/green/”white” muscadine grape even though botanical correctness dictates that “Scuppernong” should only designate the cultivar and not all such color types.

You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies, but because their fresh taste is so incredibly wonderful, I recommend that you simply keep a bowl  on the kitchen table for a quick little nosh during the season.

The Little Store Gets Fancy: A Memoir of Jitney 14

Many thanks to neighbor Susan McNease for passing along this October 2, 1988 article from The Clarion-Ledger by Leslie Myers about the extensive remodeling of the old Jitney 14. Given the recent changes to the store, it makes for a timely read, and many neighbors past and present are mentioned. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I have.

The Little Store Gets Fancy: But loyal Jitney 14 customers hope the neighborhood personality remains cozy

Jitney-Jungle 14 has recovered from its face lift and the surrounding Belhaven neighborhood is abuzz with the news. For reasons nobody can quite explain, Jitney’s store No. 14 has never been a typical grocery store. Since its 1929 opening at Fortification and Jefferson Streets, it has been a friendly meeting place, a lifeline for its loyal customers. Regulars say they keep in touch with their neighbors there, renew old acquaintances and even get an emotional lift from a Jitney trip. The dress code is: come as you are. For some, that means pajamas. It’s homey. Shoppers plan to keep it that way.

“I’ve always loved the Jitney,” said writer Eudora Welty. Welty, who grew up to become the store’s most famous customer, said its magic began on Day 1—as Jackson’s first self-service grocery store.

“I’ve been shopping there since it opened,” Welty, 79, said. “Then it was like a maze. That was part of the charm—that was the jungle part, turning corners all the time. Then they had bottled milk with cream on top in the refrigerator box—not homogenized. Real milk. You bought the one with the highest cream on top.”

Throngs of such loyal customers, along with past and present employees, will gather Monday morning at 8 to celebrate Jitney 14’s “Grand Reopening” (although it never has closed). Jackson Mayor Dale Danks will cut a ceremonial ribbon. This year-long renovation is the store’s first face lift since 1941. It includes a 10,000-square-foot expansion. Many culinary delights and services have also been added to its former meat-and-potatoes fare. Now there’s a fresh seafood counter with live lobsters instead of a freezer with fish sticks. Anchovy paste and fancy pasta? No problem.

For many customers, the change is a source of both joy and angst. Shoppers have been anxious for the store to stock some non-traditional foods . . . but they wonder if it really was necessary to level out the crooked floors and paint the walls.

“Professionally I’ve been going to the Jitney for 22 or 23 years,” said Cleta Ellington, a school teacher. “However, my grandmother used to shop there, so I would go with her, which puts it up to about 40 years. What I liked about the old Jitney was it was not all slicked up. That’s one of the dangers of the Jitney 14 getting all slicked up—its personality. It’s like when you have a friend that’s gray-headed and kind of fat and she loses weight and dyes her hair. You’re not sure you know her anymore.”

“I’m not sure about this new place,” Ellington, 44, said, the reconsidered. “Well, there is a man there who will decorate a cake for you on the spot if you’re desperate. It’s the new Jitney 14 that has this instant cake decorator. That’s a plus.”

Jackson City Councilman (sic) Margaret Barrett, a Jitney 14 shopper since childhood, said she already misses the sagging floors.

“Now, when you let go of your buggy, it doesn’t roll down three aisles,” Barrett, 43, said. “Before, down by the ice cream case, if you ever let go of your buggy it would never stop rolling—just like in the parking lot.

“When you go to the Jitney, you find out what’s happening with your friends,” Barrett said. It’s the community meeting place. If you’re ever feeling out of touch, you only need to go for one shopping trip.”

She is pleased that the Old English style and décor of the original store has been retained. “I know it was a decision that Jitney-Jungle made, to try to preserve the English village style,” she said. “I know that was costly for them. But I think that’s very much appreciated by people in the neighborhood. The Jitney has been a good neighbor.”

“It’s just real personal,” said florist Susan Milan, a 13-year customer. “Frankly I like all the people who work there, the bag boys and all the people at the checkout. You can go in and, if you need time and the lines are real long, you can tell them, ‘I’ll bring the money tomorrow.’ They trust their clientele, when they finally know you real well.”

But she worries about the ritzy signs on the new shelves. “When CANNED SOUP is written in Old English, it makes me nervous,” she said. “Maybe it’s getting too fancy. But well, now it’s cleaner.”

At least two other sleepers are wiping the sleep from their eyes.

Pat Cothren, a florist, and Patti Carr Black, Mississippi State Historical Museum director, have gone to the Jitney in their pajamas. Both have had Jitney as a “second home” for 20 years.

“One morning,” Cothren, 41 recalled, “I had nothing for breakfast to feed my family. So I ran to the Jitney in a night shirt. The Jitney is the Jitney,” she said, defending her attire. “It didn’t bother me, so I figured it wouldn’t bother them . . . it was a pretty decent night shirt. But I don’t know if I’d do it now, now that the Jitney is so fancy.”

Black emphasized with Cothren’s rush-hour plight. “I have been to Jitney a few times in my nightgown, with a long coat over it, early in the mornings,” Black, 54, said. “that was the way we used to go to breakfast at the ‘W,’” said the Mississippi University for Women alumna.

“The Jitney’s plurality is what makes it nice,” Ellington said. “There’s just all kinds of people in there. It cuts along class (and fashion) lines.”

Barrett said, “The employees also are people you know very well by first name. You’re very interested in their lives, and they’re very interested in yours.”

Two favorite employees mentioned repeatedly by Jitney 14 fans were store manager Sam Holley and veteran cashier Johanna Wade. Wade said she will never forget some of the customers.

“Three or four years ago, I was going to Holland to see my parents,” Wade, 53, recalled. “Margaret Barret, Karen Gilfoy, Cleta Ellington, Penny Hutcherson, Sis Hicks, Pat Cothren, Susan Milam and some others came up in here one afternoon. They gave me an envelope with all this money in it—almost $400—and said, “Go to Holland, spent it and have a good time.’”

“Karen (a judge) had some kind of declaration make up saying I could come back into the country as a joke. I had no idea they would do that,” Wade said. “I was shocked. It was so sweet, what they’d done. It’s just something we’ve got here in this store,” she said. “We’re close. It’s always been that way here.” Holley said the real magic of Jitney 14 mystified him, too.

Ellington said that the Jitney feeling probably is best described by Charlotte Capers, a seasoned shopper who likes to say, “I belong to the Episcopal Church and the Jitney 14.”