A Mississippi Christmas

In north Mississippi, where the Father of Waters skirts the southwestern vestiges of the Appalachians, the land undulates mile upon mile between river bottoms and wooded ridges. Here the sun is strong, and by the time December comes around a weary green still lingers along the roads. Rain arrives after warm days, ushering in longer spells of drier, colder weather.  If snow falls, rarely more than enough to cover the ground, it’s made into muddy, leaf-littered balls and stacked in the yard or gleaned cleanly and mixed with sugar, vanilla and cream.

jess_lee_snowThough winter still comes the same way, much seems to have changed there since I was a child and still looking forward to my birthday on the 12th. While not rich by any means, most of my family was well off when few were, but Jess Jr. made no bones about being a child of the Depression. Those older remembered other hardships at a more distant time, and the young, as all young at all times, had little yet to remember. In our home, Thanksgiving amounted to a modest overture to Christmas; just after the turkey was eaten, Barbara filled the house with glowing towers of glazed glass jars, papier-mâché crèche figurines and ornaments light as air hung with shining ribbons.

Her trees took days to decorate, one a loblolly pine draped in angel hair studded by tiny blue lights and hung with glittering glass ornaments.  In the den, smilax, holly and magnolia draped the mantle; bowls of walnuts, almonds and pecans, oranges, tangerines and hard candy topped the tables and on the hearth stood a bucket of dried pine cones to start an open fire where we made popcorn in a long-handled shaker. Barbara provided a groaning board. What she didn’t cook herself, she shared food friends and relatives brought for her table: ambrosia from Aunt Gay, bread-and-butter pickles from Ruby Zane, tea cakes from Aunt Leila, peanut brittle from Betty Edwards, pecan divinity from Ora Crocker, a coconut cake from Zara Arrington. A splendid cook, Barbara spent days on the Christmas feast, making pans of chicken and dressing, baking a turkey, a ham and yeast rolls, candying sweet potatoes and stuffing dozens of eggs. The bounty of our home was there for all who called, and none left hungry.

Above anyone I’ve ever known my father Jess loved Christmas, threw himself completely and unreservedly into the essence of the season and drew everyone he knew along in his wide wake. He was the Spirit of Christmas Present, bigger than life, colorful and jovial, generous and gregarious. For him, Christmas was to be celebrated with everyone, not just family and friends, but with his world.

By the first week of the month, Jess had set his plans in motion, beginning with a party at the community building at the city park on the south side of town where local bands provided music for dancing (an activity widely frowned-upon at the time) and the local blue laws banning liquor were casually set aside while he pumped his friends for contributions to fund  his Christmas expedition. After the party, he would make a trip to Tupelo, to the Lady Lee outlet store, where he would buy boxes of firecrackers and bottle rockets, huge sacks of Tootsie Rolls, cinnamon candies, peppermint sticks and butterscotch rounds; then to Cockrell Banana Company where he’d buy crates of oranges and tangerines. These he brought home where they were put in a spare bedroom, and in the days before Christmas my brother Tom, sister Cindy and I along with a cadre of neighborhood children would sort them out and stuff them into small paper sacks, staple the tops together and pile them into boxes. On Christmas Eve, we’d pile into a car, at best a station wagon commandeered from a neighbor, at worst a ’65 Mustang convertible, and we’d head to the black neighborhoods.

Jess wore a Santa suit, and Barbara would dress us children as elves. He once drafted his brother-in-law Jim to play Santa while he sauntered alongside laughing and greeting. When we rolled across the railroad tracks, we collected a troop of children flanking our route, shouting and jumping, reaching out to catch the sacks of candy and fireworks. Jess would make sure that those children who were too shy to come to the car received their share, and he would often walk into homes where he knew of special need bearing a ham or an envelope with money.

Jess was in his glory then, doing what he felt was the most important thing he did all year. His career in public service gave him an opportunity to help many people, but seeing the eyes of these children for whom his visit was the only Christmas many if not most of them would have gave him a sense of wholeness that few men are afforded. His largess, his sense of noblesse oblige, was untainted by any shadow of arrogance. He remembered the deprivations of his own childhood, and sought to relieve those of others.

Now I am an old man, far from home and missing my people who have passed on before me. I spend my holidays simply and in little company, but the living memories of my childhood are with me, my heart is warm, and I know no want. My father’s gifts live on.

How to Cook a Green Ham

Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, featured in or supporting dozens and dozens of dishes across our sideboard. But there are hams and then there are hams.

The finest hams are dry cured. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced, but they need to be soaked in pure water at least a day if baked for the table. These are often labeled country hams. So-called city hams, the kind you most often find in the supermarket, are wet-cured by injection of brine. Smoked hams are a variant of both, with smoke preserving and providing flavor.

Then you have the green ham, which is what your grandmother called a leg of pork that hasn’t been cured. You’ll find it sold as a fresh ham; you may have to look for it, you may even have to order one, but a green ham is no more trouble than any other kind, and it’s a worthy option to the nitrate-infused clubs you’ve been serving all these years.

A green ham should be covered in a rind and a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife and coat with garlic and sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper and sea salt; put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions with water to cover in the pan. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack in a heavy pan with enough water to just cover the bottom. Place in a high oven, right at 450. After thirty minutes, decrease the temperature to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Turn the oven off and let the ham sit for at least another hour before carving.

About Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that draws water and nutrients from its host plant, but has chlorophyll and produces its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe rarely affects trees that are healthy, but can harm those already weakened by root damage (as from construction), drought, or pests. The word mistletoe comes from the Old English misteltan, with tan meaning “twig” and mistel meaning “dung, filth.” This makes sense when you consider that the plant’s seeds are spread by bird droppings, but perhaps it’s best not to bear in mind that you’re kissing under a “shit stick.”

In a famous Norse myth, mistletoe caused the death of the god Balder, the best loved of all immortals, by the jealous Loki. When Balder dreamed that he was about to die, he told his mother, Freya, who went to all things and made them swear that they would never harm her son. But she thought the mistletoe too weak to hurt anyone, and Loki found this out, he fashioned a dart from the plant and put it in the hand of the blind god Hodur, who stood aside while others threw things at Balder for the fun of seeing them drop to the ground before they reached him. “Here is something for you to throw,” Loki said, “and I will direct your aim.”

No one seems to know where the kissing comes from, though some claim that after Balder’s death, Freya commanded that the plant must never again bring destruction, and that those who pass under it must exchange a kiss of love and peace. Washington Irving wrote that men commonly gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. The English hang kissing balls made with cedar and mistletoe in their doorways.