My father was a lawyer in north Mississippi. On a day in October, he’d usher my sister, brother, and me into the car and drive out west from Bruce to the Ellard community where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm.
Across the road from their house, the slope of a hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d go out there and gather all we could while Daddy sat on the porch with them, probably had some buttermilk and cornbread and a glass of tea and talked.
Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man.
“Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said. “I tried to keep their out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they knew why. I never asked them for a penny. He said to come get what I want from his patch. You don’t turn down gifts from a man who doesn’t have much to give.”
The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards; some were peeled, cubed, and parboiled for a casserole or pie. Others were split, seeded, usually scored, brushed with melted butter, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly singed.
Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork with more butter and black pepper.
Will and Scott met in a dusty New Orleans bar on a wet November afternoon and shortly fell into a discussion of favored bridge abutments in surrounding states.
Neither in fact were vagrants, both family men: Will an attorney, Scott a businessman, both Mississippians in NOLA for the wedding of mutual friends, Will the bride’s, Scott the groom’s. In time they found ethanol and automobiles in common too, but not hunting. Scott had never taken the field for game.
“Let me take you hunting,” Will said.
“Okay,” said Scott. “For what?”
Will looked him dead in the eye and said, “Snipe.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I’m serious,” Will said.
. . . . . . . . . .
They left Jackson in the darkest dawn, drove through for coffee and biscuits, then went up 49 watching the earth settle, fall away and go somewhere else.
Clambering from the truck with gear, they sank ankle-deep in muck, slugged first to one patch of mud just above the pooled water to another atoll of broken grasses, the Delta sky pushing distance to the rim of a tall lens, bringing all else into focus, amplifying sound. The rattles of the brittle grass echoed into the distance, across the river, all over the world. The mud was as old Egypt, richer than sin itself.
That close to the river, earth is a matter of water–making it, shaping it, teaching it–letting earth absorb all light, all air, all crisp, cold and fragile, brushed with a thin brittle crust on a bitter morning.
Furrowed and churned, the field was a mummified of pale brittle stems that collapsed hither and thither, hiding muck, confusing footwork and sheltering snipe, the being itself, a will-o’-the-wisp the very color of winter—white, grey and black fading to or from indiscriminate brown, beige or buff in indifferent patterns on insignificant substance—a bird of earth without place in air where it seeks in fits to find a place and–failing, furtive–rushes back to the tussocks.
. . . . . . . . . .
“Here we go,” Will said, stepping into the muck and pointing out into the water-mirrored field. “The birds hide up in piles of grass near water. They flush easy, so ease up before you move in.” The grass in front of them rustled and set alight two birds, translucent in the sun trailing faint alarms before they lit in another field.
“Can’t even see them mid-air,” Scott said. “They’re too light and grey.”
Will grinned. The sky was a blinding blue that dribbled down in pools and puddles. The only wind blew way above under a small cool sun, moving shadows of blades, leaves and stems. They walked, guns at their hips, talking to fill the void.
. . . . . . . . . .
“You don’t talk much about over there.”
“Not a lot to say,” Scott said. “It wouldn’t make sense to you.”
“Does it have to? Did it to you?
“Some of it did.” Beside them a clump of cattail folded brown and enclosed exploded into a busy ball of air. Scott crouched and shot, the sound bouncing across the field, the bird falling, twisting, one wing reaching for lift.
Will found the winged bird, wrung its neck, put it in the sack on his shoulder and said, “I want to know what it’s like to kill someone.”
“Why? You gonna kill somebody?”
Will grinned. “Maybe. Maybe I just want to know what it feels like to point a gun at a man and pull the trigger and watch him fall.”
“They weren’t men,” Scott said. “Not to me. They weren’t even enemies. They were just things in the distance. Dark shapes that moved. I never killed anyone. I just shot things and watched them fall.”
“But didn’t they shoot at you?”
“Yes, dammit! Sure they did. You know they did, and I got hit, too!” Scott said.
“I didn’t know that,” Will said.
“In the fucking back,” Scott said. “Shattered my shoulder blade. It’s a steel plate now. Went right through. Bled like a motherfucker.”
“Can I see the scar?”
“It’s too cold to take my shirt off, man,” Scott laughed.
“You don’t have to. Just let me feel it,” Will said.
Scott stopped walking and rubbed the tears off his face. He cradled his gun in the crook of his left arm and with his right unzipped his jacket. “It’s on the left side,” he said.
Will took the glove off his right hand, turned and moved his hand into the jacket, beneath the shirt to the skin, the hair, gently probing, pausing, feeling.
“That’s not it,” Scott said, “That’s my . . .”
“I know what it is,” Will said.
“Up,” Scott said, “There.”
“Yes. Does it still hurt?”
“No,” Scott said. “Not any more. It’s still tender, but you’re not hurting me.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Will said. “I just wanted to feel the scar.”
“You’re not hurting me, Will.”
“It’s okay, Scott. It’s okay. Why don’t we call it a day, have a couple of drinks on the way home?”
. . . . . . . . . .
They moved towards the ruts atop the dam that passed for a road, their steps less measured, more insistent, no longer stalking, but in pursuit, the sinking sun reddening, silhouetting the distance, a glittering planet punctuating the blueprint heavens.
They climbed into the truck. Will cranked it up and turned on the lights.
“We can grab a bottle and go to Smitty’s cabin on the Big Black. I’ll call Beth and tell her to call Ann,” Will said. “We’ll tell them we didn’t kill anything, be home tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Scott said, wiping tears from his face. “I’m just tired.”
This is a recording of Raymond Bailey performing “The Last Train through Vardaman” that Barbara Yancy made sometime in 1975-76. I lost the first part of Raymond’s narrative because the tape was so old and broke at both ends during recording, but I did hear it on the first playback. Raymond begins with saying, “This is ‘The Last Train through Vardaman.’ I remember we were loading the train that day, and my brother said, ‘Pile it high, boys, because this is the last train through Vardaman!’ So, we loaded her up (and away she went!)” The tape has him doing a couple of other songs, including ‘Nellie Gray’ and a version of ‘Casey Jones,’ but it’s too fragile for any further play. The locomotive is the OH&CC Number 9 at Okolona. Listen to Raymond here.
Mexico has almost six thousand miles of coastline—about half of the estimated total for the U.S.—but mollusks don’t seem to play a proportionate role in Mexican cuisine.
Kennedy includes a scallop cebiche in Cuisines of Mexico, but not a one for oysters. This is not to say that oysters and scallops aren’t eaten in the country, simply that you’ll not find them in cookbooks. Recipes for salt-water fish abound, and red snapper Veracruz (huachinango a la Veracruzana), a rich, colorful dish with tomatoes and chilies, is one of the most distinguished. This scallop recipe is a riff on that, lighter and more intense.
Thaw frozen scallops, squeeze and drain. Even fresh scallops are too watery for this dish, so sauté lightly until firm. Then drain, toss with pepper, a bit of salt and a light dusting of plain flour. Brown in the least bit of oil possible, then add by spoonfuls a pungent, piquant, and aromatic tomato salsa. Cook until scallops are well-coated.
Much is written about foods as panaceas against the interminable petty crises of everyday existence. A bowl of chicken stew on a crisp November night or a little plate of banana pudding on a warm May afternoon can be every bit as comforting as old shoes, good memories, or Mose Allison.
Dishes that challenge should have places on our plates as well. At some point in our lives, many of us become complacent; we eat what we prefer to the point of stultification. Listen to your Auntie Mame: “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Diversify. I’m not urging you to sample foods contrary to your ethics, but do try dishes you might forego for less proscriptive reasons.
Childhood prejudices should come under review. Unless you were the subject to the most dastardly abuse, the dishes you disliked as a child were most likely fed you by people who loved you and wanted you to do well in the world. Believe that. Believe also that they probably didn’t know how to cook very well; perhaps it’s their fault you hate spinach. The lingering scar of their benign ineptitude should not deny you of present or future pleasure.
My culinary bugbear was eggplant, invariably fried, soggy, greasy, and limp as hell. I hated it. But once I went to a Lebanese event at Ole Miss where a spry little lady served up the most wonderful creamy, and absolutely delicious spread. I asked her what it was, and she turned to her husband, whose English was better, and he said “eggplant.” Had I known what it was in the first place, I probably wouldn’t have tried it at all, but I was pleasantly surprised that my old bête noire could take on such an appealing form. The dish is known by many names, but I know it as baba ghanoush. Here’s a basic recipe:
3 medium eggplants 3 cloves of roast garlic, mashed 1/2 cup of tahini 1/4 cup lemon juice 1/4 cup water 1 tablespoon salt
Stem, pierce and roast eggplants in a hot oven until soft. Scoop out the flesh, taking care to get the browned meat, mix with the other ingredients and blend in a food processor until smooth. Adjust salt to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with flat bread.
The answer isn’t easy; hell, getting enough facts in a pile is hard enough, then you have to figure in observer, perspective, and perception. A dedicated minority of natives maintain that the South is a fluid, protean, shattered chimerical idea as well as just a place to hang your hat. This embracing grassroots duality is compounded (likely compromised) not only by Cash, Woodward, Foote, and their myriad lesser ilk, but also those from outside the South–the nation, the continent, the world–who come here to write 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. The notes for South and West were published fifty years later.
Didion begins her excursion through Darkest Dixie in New Orleans registering 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.”
Some 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 prominent locals, 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. I find it telling that she couldn’t find Faulkner’s grave in that cemetery in Oxford; perhaps it’s just as telling that she even went looking.
In Meridian, Didion describes an audience in Mississippi watching an American movie “as if it were Czechoslovakian”; this is quite literally the purest form of projection, for it is Didion who is staring at a landscape, a region, without comprehension, driving through Dixie in a distracted daze. We should bear ear to her dispassionate observations, if only to see ourselves through her eyes.
When November comes, hunters up and down the Mississippi flyway flock to the wild with guns and dogs. In the Mississippi Delta, arguably the heart of the flyway, men of a certain feather abandon their usual nests of domesticity for camp, in Irwin Hester’s case his duck camp on Concordia Island in Bolivar County.
“It’s not really an island,” Irwin said. “If anything, it’s a peninsula, since the river makes a tight loop around it.” He looked out the window at the sunset spread out over Arkansas. “You’d think they’d have a special name for a riparian peninsula, but they don’t.”
Irwin retired from what he calls “the oil business” almost a decade ago. He received his degree in geology from Mississippi State in the early 70s and began working with Gulf Oil, stayed with them through the merger, and remained, working his way up the ladder, eventually landing in Pittsburgh at U-PARK.
An only child, Irwin never married (“Just too damned busy,” he explained). When he retired in 2012, he came back home to Mississippi, made a home, renewed old friendships, and moved his folks’ old home to the end of a dirt road on Concordia Island. Twice a year, the beginning of duck season and the end, November and January, he holds camp.
“I make real, Texas-style chili,” Irwin said. “It’s the best, and once you’ve had it, you’ll never call anything else chili. I learned to make it when I lived in Austin. I knew a guy who cooked it at his hunt camp up on the Pedernales River. He said he got his recipe from Lady Bird Johnson herself.
Irwin’s chili has no beans, no tomatoes, and no onions. He uses a lean cut of beef, usually a top round, cut into large chunks, coats these in a mixture of smoked paprika, crushed leaf oregano, cayenne, and ground cumin, and browns them in a cast iron Dutch oven. For each pound of beef, he soaks, peels and seeds four anchos.
He uses the water from the peppers in the beef, adding more to cover about an inch, and places the heavily-lidded pot in the oven at a low temperature (“Just enough to make it simmer”) in the morning, and by the time the sun gets an angle, the chili must be stirred (“Once is enough”) and returned to the oven for another hour. When men return from the field, the fire is blazing, bottles opened, and a guitar is passed around. He keeps Crystal on the table.
“It’s as good a bowl of red as you’re going to get on this side of the Mississippi,” Irwin says.
This simple, hearty recipe is a perfect side for pork. The Irish call it calcannon, but you don’t have to.
For two servings, use one large starchy potato (russet) to a packed cup of raw, chopped kale. Cut potatoes into chunks, boil vigorously until very soft, and whip with milk and butter. These don’t have to be perfectly smooth; in fact, they’re better a little lumpy, if you ask me (and I know you didn’t).
Stew greens, drain, and toss with a melted butter. Mix potatoes and kale; season with salt and white pepper. Some people cook green onions with the kale, but they’re better as a garnish.
You can thin this basic recipe with milk or broth to make a soup, or you can spoon it into a casserole and bake with crumbled bacon and some type of dry cheese.
On February 26, 1944, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon syndicate published a panel featuring a tall, austere gentleman in a black suit. The caption beneath read, “Dennis Murphree has been governor of Mississippi twice although never elected to that office. In 1927 and 1943—as Lt. Governor—he became chief executive through the death of the incumbent.”
True, Dennis Murphree was never elected governor of Mississippi, but that’s not to say he didn’t try, running unsuccessfully in three gubernatorial races. Few people ever wanted to be elected governor more than he did, but the political scales in Mississippi never tilted his way.
He was born in Pittsboro, Mississippi, on January 6, 1886, the first child of Thomas Martin Murphree and Callie Cooper Murphree. His father served four years in the Confederate army and two terms as justice of the peace. He was a member of the school board, twice served as circuit clerk, and was twice elected state representative from Calhoun County. Martin Murphree was also a newspaper editor and died during his second term as state representative.
Dennis Murphree assumed the printing and newspaper office at his father’s death. In 1911 he was elected state representative from Calhoun County, Mississippi, the youngest person elected to that office from Calhoun County up to that time. His formal education was limited, but he obtained a vast amount of experience in the newspaper business. He was reelected state representative in 1915 and again in 1919. He married Clara Minnie Martin of Pittsboro. They had three daughters and one son.
Murphree was a fine orator, and in 1920 he was unanimously elected as temporary speaker of the house of representatives to serve during the illness of Mike Conner, the regularly elected speaker. He served thirty days and obtained valuable experience that he later used as presiding officer of the senate as lieutenant governor.
When Murphree ran for lieutenant governor in 1923, he defeated Hernando De Soto Money, Jr., son of U.S. Senator (1897-1911) Hernando De Soto Money, Sr. During his tenure, Murphree helped promote legislation to help the farmers, Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University) was established, and the mental institution in Jackson was moved to Rankin County and later named for the incumbent Governor Henry Whitfield.
In 1925, Governor Whitfield called a meeting in Jackson with the object of adopting “some plan whereby the opportunities, possibilities and resources of Mississippi might be effectively presented to the outside world.” Lieutenant Governor Murphree proposed a plan of a “Know Mississippi Better Train,” a special train to carry representatives of Mississippi, exhibits of Mississippi resources, literature, and public speakers to visit across the country. The first KMB train pulled out of Jackson in August of 1925. Except for four years during World War II, the Know Mississippi Better Train ran every summer until 1948.
When Whitfield became ill in the summer of 1926, Murphree acted as governor much of the time. On March 16, 1927, Governor Whitfield died, and Murphree was sworn in as governor on March 18, 1927. A little over a month later, the levee broke at a ferry landing at Mounds, Mississippi, flooding an area 50 mi. wide and 100 mi. long with 20 feet of water, threatening the lives of almost 200,000 people.
FOR GOD’S SAKE, SEND US BOATS! blared the headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune¸ quoting a plea from Governor Murphree. “For God’s sake, send us boats! Back from the levees, where the land is flooded by backwaters, people are living on housetops, clinging to trees, and barely existing in circumstances of indescribable horror. The only way we can get them out of there is by boat, and we haven’t the boats at present. Please try to make the people of New Orleans realize how urgent this is.”
The disastrous flood of 1927 that almost took Governor Murphree’s life required so much of his time that he was unable to campaign properly. As an additional handicap, he was twice forced by law to call out the National Guard to prevent lynchings in Jackson. Even though he had no choice in either instance, the whole matter was used from one end of the state to the other by his opponent, Theodore G. Bilbo, an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy to arouse prejudice and inflame hatred by his opponent, Theodore G. Bilbo, an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy.
Murphree himself was a personal target of Bilbo’s crude and scathing campaign rhetoric. Family legend has it that when Bilbo died in 1947, one of Murphree’s daughters told him he should not go to “that horrible man’s” funeral, to which Murphree replied, “Daughter, I just want to see them throw a ton of dirt on the son-of-a-bitch.”
In 1931 Murphree ran for lieutenant governor and won. When he ran for governor in 1935 against Hugh L. White and Paul B. Johnson, Sr., he failed to get into the second primary. In 1939 he ran his third successful race for lieutenant governor. As lieutenant Governor Murphree helped Governor Johnson carry out most of his proposed legislation, including free textbooks for the schoolchildren of the state, an increased homestead exemption (from $3,500 to $5,000), and an expanded membership for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning to remove the board from political influences.
Murphree ran for governor the third time in 1943 in one of the most hotly contested gubernatorial races in Mississippi history against former Governor Mike Conner, Thomas L. Bailey, and Lester C. Franklin. Murphree failed to get into the second primary by less than 400 votes. Bailey won the election in an upset.
Then a little more than a month after the November general election, Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., died on December 26, 1943. Once again, Murphree was elevated to the governor’s office to serve the remainder of the Johnson term. He served as governor from December 26, 1943, to January 18, 1944, when Governor-Elect Thomas L. Bailey was inaugurated.
After a life devoted to public service, Murphree died of a stroke on February 9, 1949, at the age of sixty-three. He was buried near his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi.
Take two cups of self-rising flour and sift in dry a scant teaspoon of baking soda. Add 1/3 cup cold vegetable shortening, and mix thoroughly with your fingers until granular.
Working quickly, stir in enough chilled buttermilk to make a sticky dough. Throw this dough out on a generously-floured surface, sprinkle with a scant more flour and knead once or twice, no more than enough to make a manageable mass.
Roll out thick, about half an inch, and, using a sharp edge, cut into large rounds, at least 3″. Again, work quickly so that the dough doesn’t get warm; the soda has to work in the oven.
Place the biscuits–just touching–in a lightly greased skillet or thick metal pan. Pop them into a very hot oven for about a quarter an hour until golden-brown and fragrant. Brush with butter while hot.