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.”

 

All in a Name

In the introduction to her splendid Southern Hospitality Cookbook Jackson native Winifred Cheney states that a signature dish is “a tribute in the field of cookery”, intimating such dishes as oyster Rockefeller or Melba toast, but here Winifred misinforms. A signature dish is a recipe that identifies or is directly associated with an individual chef or a particular restaurant. For instance, one could say that blackened redfish is a signature dish of Paul Prudhomme’s, or shrimp and grits that of Bill Neale’s or that oysters Rockefeller—a variation of oysters Florentine—is a signature dish of Antoine’s as barbecued shrimp is of Pascale’s Manale.

Dishes named for people, either to honor them—as in the Rockefeller, purportedly because the dish is so rich—or because they were first made for them—as is the case with Melba toast, first made by opera aficionado Auguste Escoffier for his favorite diva Nellie Melba when she was indisposed to speed her recovery (it did, so eat Melba toast the next time you have those withering faints of artistic exhaustion), don’t have a specific term of reference. They’re just recipes named for people, there are dozens upon dozens of them and more are being created all the time. Winifred herself created two dishes for her neighbor and celebrated author Eudora Welty, apples Eudora and squash Eudora, each using what Winifred says are two of Welty’s favorite foods, tart apples and yellow squash.

Winifred is notorious for recipes that are rich, with expensive, hard-to-find ingredients and take a long time to make; the most frequent critiques of The Southern Hospitality Cookbook center around how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. Such is the case with her apples Eudora, which she describes as “tart apples cooked in a delicious syrup, drained and baked in a rich custard, then filled with an apricot rum filling and topped with a dollop of whipped cream” and if that doesn’t wear you out just reading it, then preparing it is going to make you bedridden.

Then she gives us squash Eudora, which while lacking in the elegance of her apples Eudora, is certainly less tedious. The principle ingredients are yellow crookneck squash and chicken livers. Now, chicken livers, like any type of liver, aren’t for everyone; they’re one of those things you either hate or love, rather like any incumbent president. Still, you can’t make a foie gras without them, and I’ve found that liver enthusiasts tend to be among the more culinarily sophisticated. I myself like squash Eudora, and it is substantial enough to serve either as an entrée or as a heavy buffet dish. What follows is not Winifred’s recipe to the letter (for instance, she uses “dried green onions” by which she might mean chives, but I substitute with fresh green onions), but it is faithful in spirit.

Wash but do not peel two pounds tender yellow squash. Slice thinly and parboil with a pat of butter until tender. Drain and season with black pepper and salt to taste. Drain and wash a half pound (8 oz.) livers, cut into halves and sauté in butter with Worcestershire. Set aside to cool, then drain and mix with squash, about a cup of chopped green onions a teaspoon curry powder, a teaspoon celery seed, one egg lightly beaten and a half cup grated Parmesan. Put mixture in a shallow casserole and bake at 350 until mixture is firm, dust top with more Parmesan and brown. Serve with fresh summer vegetables such as tomatoes or green beans. Winifred says that you can substitute a pound of lump crabmeat for the livers, and indeed you can if your pocketbook will allow.

A History of Belhaven: Part 2, The Early Years (1900-1925)

This is the second in a series of articles on the Belhaven neighborhood by Bill and Nan Harvey supplemented by links to more detailed stories published earlier in Jesse Yancy’s Mississippi Sideboard. In this part we discuss the first developments in the neighborhood which include early homes, residents, streets and institutions.

The area that became the Belhaven neighborhood began around 1900 with small residential developments along North State Street.  Gradually the growth pattern spread north and east as open land was subdivided and homes constructed. More than 20 subdivisions were platted north of Fortification to the future Riverside Drive and east of State Street to the modern day I-55.

The first subdivision in the district, the North Park Addition platted on April 17, 1900 by owners George W. Carlisle, et. al., included the southwest corner of what was to become the Belhaven neighborhood east from North State to Kenwood and north from Fortification to Poplar. Today only a small portion east of Jefferson Street remains in the Belhaven Historic District. The next subdivision,  North Belleview,  which platted in January 1905 by Hollingsworth and Magruder,  is a rectangular subdivision north of present day Belhaven Street to Euclid and east to Edgewood to Peachtree.

Additional information on Belhaven development can be obtained from Hinds County plat maps and the narrative application by the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation to the U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service for the designation of the Belhaven area as a historic district.

The first houses in our neighborhood, the J.N. Flowers-Max McLauren home at 1505 N. State and the Swearington-Smith home at 1501 were built in 1904. The Mims-Dreyfus Home at 1530 North State was added in 1905. Early construction centered around the new Millsaps College which opened on its present site in 1890. The 1700 block of North State, Park Ave. and portions of Oakwood Street were part of this early development which was outside the city limits whose northern boundary was Manship Street.  Two prominent homes in the early development of our neighborhood  are the Fairview at 734 Fairview Street and the Kennington Mansion at 1020 Carlisle.

The Fairview, a colonial revival mansion, built in 1908 by Cyrus Warren, a local lumberman, now serves as a bread and breakfast inn owned and operated by Peter and Tamar Sharp.  It was for many years the home of the D.C. Simmons family and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places

The Kennington Mansion was originally built in 1912 by Jackson businessman R.E. Kennington. It was named for an estate in England of similar neo classical revival style. The original mansion fronted Kenwood Place but falling prey to Yazoo clay was demolished and rebuilt facing Carlisle in 1934. The Kennington family grounds were composed of 23 acres, a nine-hole golf course, greenhouses, barns and stables. There was a lake east of the main structure whose bottom was in the approximate location of the intersection of Fortification and Whitworth Streets.

Early in the 20th century Rev. Bryan Simmons, a Baptist minister, told of a fight that occurred in Jackson near the Illinois Central Railroad depot on Capitol Street. One of the combatants was shot and critically wounded. Among those who came to the scene was a young doctor with a small local practice established in 1905. His name was Harley Roseborough Shands. Dr. Shands realized emergency surgery was necessary.  Since there was no local hospital in which to take him Dr. Shands successfully treated the gunshot victim at his small office on Capitol Street. Dr. Shands brought the first microscope to Jackson used in a medical practice.

In September 1905, another doctor reported a case in south Jackson that he thought might be yellow fever. Crowds gathered on Capitol Street to await the verdict of Dr. Shands’ microscope. When the words came “No yellow fever”, the crowds cheered and “there was much handshaking, backslapping, laughter and rejoicing.”  Dr. Shands knew of another Tulane medical graduate whose father had served for many years as pastor of Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church. This older physician was Dr. John Farrar Hunter who in addition to practicing medicine operated the J.F. Hunter & Company drug store at the corner of Capitol and State Streets. Recognizing the need for more professional medical care in the city, the two doctors established the Hunter and Shands clinic in 1907.

In 1908, the two physicians bought a house and lot at the southeast corner of North State and Manship Streets, known as the Echols property and transformed the eight room residence into a small but well equipped medical facility. Prior to this, the only services which could be even loosely called hospitals were a handful of local sanitariums and a few private residences of licensed physicians where emergency appendectomies were sometimes performed on kitchen tables. Doctors made house calls in those days and relied a great deal on nurses.

It was obvious that Jackson needed a larger facility for treating the critically ill. The realization of this need was shared by the Rev. W.F. Yarbrough, pastor of the first Baptist Church who had come to visit a patient in the Hunter and Shands Clinic. Through Rev. Yarborough, doctors Shands and Hunter offered their small facility to the Mississippi Baptists after several other denominations had turned it down. At a meeting of the Mississippi Baptist Convention in the fall of 1909, Rev, Yarbrough offered a resolution  that the Convention “look with favor on the offer of property valued at $5,000 in the City of Jackson for hospital purposes and that a committee be appointed to study the proposal.” Drs. Hunter and Shands offered their property as a gift with only their $5,000 in equipment investment to be compensated. On December 16, 1910 the hospital committee met with the two physicians and accepted its offer which was finalized in a letter dated October 12, 1910. The committee took charge on January 1, 1911 and the Mississippi Baptist Hospital came into being.

As Christian evangelist Robert H. Schuller (1926-2015), once said, “Today’s accomplishments were yesterday’s impossibilities.” One of yesterday’s impossibilities became today’s Mississippi Baptist Medical Center. Through the vision, generosity and determination of three early Jackson citizens the city’s first real hospital was established in our neighborhood a little over 100 years ago. It was Belhaven’s first great institution and a significant modern  supporter of our fine neighborhood foundation.

Jackson’s expansion north and eastward continued sporadically through the teens and early twenties of the 20th century. Many of the newer streets were outside the city and bore different names than those we know today. Early streets were named by developers, prominent citizens or for families who owned land along their borders. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps of the period give us a window to view where we might have lived when the neighborhood was young.

There were streets and avenues and places and circles some at different times on a single thoroughfare. Original street names often changed when brought into the city or when someone realized there were duplications that could be confusing. For example, at one time in 1925 there were three Park Avenues. State Street, named for that “great street” in Chicago, has always borne that name but some of its intersecting street names would not be recognizable today.  Poplar Boulevard from State to Kenwood was Wells Street, Pinehurst Place was Harper, Fairview, named for Mr. Warren’s home, went only to Edgewood and the eastern two blocks were Morehead Ave. Oakwood was Mims Place.   As you move eastward Kenwood was one of those Parks, as was Edgewood and a portion of Peachtree. Greymont was Sullivan Street, Linden Place from Poplar to Pinehurst was Opper (Upper?) Drive, Pine was Jefferson extended, the first block of Marshall was Taylor, portions of Manship were Persimmon, Laurel was Willow and Riverside was the Pumphouse Road.

Belhaven Street was not one of the earliest streets entering State but was constructed shortly after the college relocated to Peachtree in 1911. Rose Hill was originally designed to be a circle. It was to be bisected by Springbrook and once entered St. Ann between the 1100 and 1200 blocks. It was never fully built as the railroad reneged on its agreement to deed the land to the city and Rose Hill’s circle was never completed.

Riverside Drive did not come into the city until 1930, but prior to that was known as the Pumphouse Road. According to Belhaven resident Muller Addkison, the gravel road followed Riverside’s overlay but turned and extended southward from the water plant along the Pearl River and on to Devil’s Elbow beach. A few cars, horses and foot traffic could be seen on a Sunday afternoon along the riverside and young men would take the College girls riding along the banks. Annual floods, a new highway and time itself took out the road and left just the river and a few bankside fishermen as monuments to its existence. It’s gone now, a victim of progress.

A  development that stood out was Gillespie Place, particularly its first block off State Street. Gillespie Place marked the southern end of the Gillespie Farm which consisted of land purchased shortly after the Civil War by Capt. William Marion Gillaspie (Gillespie) (1823-1893). Capt. Gillespie came to the Jackson area from Purdy County, Tennessee. He was a school teacher, had knowledge of pharmacy and was associated with Planters Insurance Company.

Captain Gillespie purchased 40 acres of meadows and woods for $840 which became the Gillespie Farm.  His home near State Street was secluded in a wooded area where only the gables could be seen from the road. The rough outline of this property today would start at Gillespie Place, run north to Arlington and east to the center of today’s 700 blocks. Mrs. Charlotte Charles said that the eastern terminus of the farm was her house and lot at 762 Gillespie.

After the Captain’s death the old Gillespie Place home burned.  It is said that the he left a fortune in silver buried on the grounds of his homestead and thus the land became the target of a number of treasure hunters bearing shovels and harboring high hopes. But that is just a legend and by definition a legend is interesting and historical but not verifiable. Or is it?

The Gillespie Farm was subdivided into lots and sold with the first home at 749 Gillespie Place built in 1910 (Carnahan House). The Captain’s widow, Mrs. William Gillespie, daughters Frances Gillespie Carnahan and Mary Gillespie Pierce joined with several other developers in disposing of the farmland after his death. Architectural styles on the block are craftsman, colonial and Tudor revival. Even today, the block resembles a window into the New Orleans Garden District. Seta  Alexander Sancton, a former resident of 720 Gillespie Place, wrote The World from Gillespie Place (1987), an interesting and entertaining book about her block containing stories of her growing up on the Place near North State. Copies may be obtained at local Jackson libraries.

In 1916 Jackson had seven elementary schools. These were Poindexter on Robinson (Jackson’s first elementary school), George on Roach St. (Duttoville school), Poindexter on W. Capitol, Davis on N. Congress, Galloway on Bailey Ave., Jim Hill on Lynch St. and Smith Robertson on Bloom St. There was no school north of Fortification and east of State to serve Jackson’s fastest growing neighborhood.

According to Department of Education board minutes for August 21, 1916, a resolution was passed naming the new school at the corner of N. State and Pinehurst Place for Col. J.L. Power (1834-1901). While not a school man, Col. Power served on several boards and committees that provided administration to Jackson’s early school system. Col. Power distinguished himself in the 1st Artillery Regiment, Company A of the Confederate Army. After the war he worked in the publishing business and helped establish the Mississippi Standard which later merged with the Clarion Ledger. For 27 years he was superintendent of the First Presbyterian Sunday School and was a ruling elder in that church. He was Grand Secretary of all Mississippi Masons from 1869 until his death.

The first Power School building had an entrance facing State Street but a later expansion placed the primary access at 709 Pinehurst directly south of today’s First Presbyterian Church. Land for the school was acquired from J.T. Harper (11/17/15), W. Carnahan (02/11/15) and F.L. Mayes (10/29/15). The two story brick schoolhouse was designed by N.W. Overstreet and Hays Towns and was completed in time for its first classes on September 18, 1916, at a cost of $30,000.  The original school building contained five classrooms. Power’s first teachers were first grade, Miss Emma Green; second and third grade, Miss Mable Bridges; fourth grade, Miss Ruth Reed; fifth and sixth grade, Miss Jim Hailey; and seventh grade, Miss Marcia Gibbs who served as the school’s first principal. Memories of some of the early students at old Power may be seen and shared in the link to this section.

Over the next 30 years the first Power School suffered from a problem many of us in our neighborhood endure today – Yazoo clay. The building became unstable in the early 1950’s and was closed in 1954.  However, a new Power School was being constructed at 1120 Riverside Drive and today serves as an incubator for some of Jackson’s most gifted students.

Belhaven College endured many struggles in its early years just to survive. We have mentioned its beginnings with the acquisition of Col. Jones Hamilton’s property by Dr. Louis Fitzhugh in 1894 and its destruction by fire the following year. The school was rebuilt on the same grounds and Mrs. J.R. Preston, wife of its second president, remembers in a mid-20th century address details of the first campus in Belhaven Heights.

“It comes vividly before me, the grounds of ten acres, most of which was in the campus, the rest in pasture for Jersey cows where in the spring they stood knee deep in clover. I can still see the campus naturally adorned with the native trees, oak, elm, hackberry and a few magnolias with a row of pink crepe myrtle for the southern boundary. Still to be seen from the south as one drives down Belleview (now Bellevue), were the rockeries (rock gardens) adding a formal touch and there was a basketball field nearby. A quaint landmark was the style by which pedestrians gained access to the board walk leading directly to the dormitory. This climb by day was breath-taking and by night more than spooky.”

A second devastating fire destroyed the school in October 1910 and the Boyd (Belleview) site was abandoned. Construction began immediately on today’s present  Peachtree campus on and the school was renamed the Belhaven Collegiate and Industrial Institute on July 25, 1911.

We come now to the end of Belhaven’s early years, years of innovation, growth and a pioneering spirit. There is little doubt that our neighborhood would prosper and continue its progress toward a special place in our city. Our next section, the middle years, will continue this progress. There will be a seasoning of our namesake college, the state’s first air conditioned supermarket, the little filling station that became a refuge, the day a king  came to visit, a subdivision within a subdivision, a new park, our most famous resident and much more. Two events occurred in 1925 that would set this stage: the city limits were expanded northward to Euclid and eastward to Peachtree and C.W. Welty would sell his home on N. Congress and move his family to 1119 Pinehurst. Mr. Welty had a 16-year-old daughter named Eudora.

 

Levee Press: The Delta Imprimatur

“For reasons best known to ourselves,” Hodding Carter, Ben Wasson and Kenneth Haxton decided “one low-water night some time back” to organize “still another addition to the multiplicity of publishing houses whose directors dream of an America that will some day read instead of write.” Their brainchild, Levee Press, ranks among those small publishing enterprises—the Woolfs’ Hogarth and the Webbs’ Loujon, for instance—that are distinguished by the quality of their production. Though its output was miniscule by any standards—only four publications in roughly that many years totaling somewhat less than 3000 copies (2635 “official” count)—Levee Press imprints command a significant price among an elite of discerning bibliophiles because the names of the four authors—Foote, Welty, Faulkner and Percy—resonate in the state, the region and the world. Had Levee Press maintained production at such a level of quality, the Greenville publishing house could very well in time have become one of the premiere imprints in the nation, but indifference, dissent, certainly some combination of the two—melded to bring an end to it.

In the late 1940s, during the “golden age” of Mississippi literature, the output was phenomenal, with Welty and Faulkner as cynosures in a stellar flurry of belles lettres including works from Carter himself, who had commandeered the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times—as he had the Hammond Daily Courier—into a newspaper of integrity and distinction, an achievement acknowledged by the Pulitzer jury that awarded him the prize for editorial writing in 1946. Hodding was at the peak of his career; his reputation as a capable spokesman for a progressive South was solidly entrenched across the nation. Ben Wasson, who had worked in New York theater with Leland Hayward and acted as Faulkner’s first literary agent, wrote on the arts and as a literary critic for the newspaper. Kenneth Haxton, a composer and husband of National Book Award nominee Josephine Ayers Haxton, who wrote under the surname Ellen Douglas, worked full-time at his family’s department store, Nelms and Blum’s (his mother was a Blum), where he had installed a bookstore. Carter also had young Shelby Foote working for him at the Delta Democrat-Times then, and while Hodding can dryly drawl about the enterprising intentions of him and his cronies in their cups, it was Foote who came up with the idea to publish a book using the resources of the Delta Democrat-Times.

Shelby Foote grew up in Greenville alongside his fraternal friend Walker Percy under the patriarchal wing of planter/poet William Alexander Percy. Foote, like Walker, had literary ambitions which in time both realized, but in early 1947, Foote had just turned 30, had only one major work in progress (Tournament), and his expenses were mounting. Apparently quite on his own initiative, he decided to print and publish his own work with the limited resources of the Delta Democrat-Times print shop. Since his enterprise just happened to mesh with their own previous plans to publish books in the hub of the Delta, Ben Wasson, representing Hodding Carter and Kenneth Haxton, asked Foote if he would add the name “Levee Press” to the pamphlet they had heard he was planning to print. “We gonna call it the Levee Press,” Wasson said, nodding out the window at the earthworks against the river.

From within the Tournament manuscript, Foote excised the grim story of Abraham Wisten, the tragic story of an ambitious Jewish immigrant, entitled it The Merchant of Bristol and hired co-worker Bill Yarborough to typeset and print 260 copies of the 20-page novella on June 2, 1947. Foote stapled them together himself and—with considerable pluck—signed,  numbered and marketed his work in the book section of Nelms and Blum’s at $1.50 a copy. More than one wit remarked that just as much would buy a good dress shirt, and sales were predictably disappointing, not only perhaps because of Foote’s perceived pretentions but more likely because as a publication, The Merchant of Bristol is nothing more than a pamphlet, reminiscent of the blue essay books used for university examinations. Wisten’s tragedy was reprinted in Foote’s first work of fiction, Tournament, in 1949.

Writing in the Commercial Appeal on July 6, 1947, columnist Paul Flowers announced, “Freshest literary venture in the South today is the Levee Press at Greenville, Miss. (there’s always something going on among the literati of Washington County.) The Levee Press is the idea of a group of writers, for the perpetuation of stories, essays, and other literary material which may not have enough general interest for publication on a national scale, but too good to be forgotten… Shelby Foote broke the ice with a short story, published in pamphlet form, and 250 copies, each one numbered and autographed, went out to persons who had subscribed. The project is non-profit and there’s no incentive except to keep alive bits of writing which ought to live. More small volumes will be coming from the Levee Press. It will not be commercial, and no one connected with it is looking for material gain (except Foote, of course: JY) However, most, if not all of its insiders are welling manuscripts in the open market, but they will publish at home, just for collector’s items some of the pieces nearest their hearts.” Flowers doubtless received this description of the Levee Press’s objectives from Hodding Carter himself by way of promotion, and perhaps this is an echo of the “reasons best known to ourselves” that he referred to some six years later in Where Main Street Meets the River, where he claimed—again, after the fact—that the purpose of the Levee Press was to “publish limited, signed editions of new, relatively short books—“novella” sounds better—by established Southern writers.”

With the publication of A Curtain of Green (1941) and The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), Welty had garnered three O. Henry awards and a Guggenheim fellowship, which made her a clear candidate for publication with the Levee Press. Wasson “brazenly” asked Welty if she would permit the new publishing firm to issue one of her manuscripts as a book and had told her the plans for the new press. In Count no ‘Count, Wasson recounts, “The great and gracious lady replied that she approved of such a venture, that Mississippi needed a limited editions press, and that, as it happened, she did have a manuscript. It was a novella, Music from Spain.” In December, 1946, Welty traveled to San Francisco to visit her friend and ofttime paramour John Robinson, rented her own apartment there in January and between then and March wrote a lengthy story, “Music from Spain”. The story stands at somewhat of a distance from the body of Welty’s oeuvre because it is set outside of Mississippi, in San Francisco, its narrative is stream-of-consciousness and it is distinctly erotic—indeed, homoerotic— a daring element in a work for publication in Greenville, Mississippi in the late 1940s. After contacting Welty’s agent, Diarmuid Russell, Carter and company contracted Welty for 750 copies was agreed to give her 25 per cent of the $2.50 price—Wasson claims $4—in exchange for non-exclusive rights to “Music from Spain”.

When Ben Wasson proposed that Levee Press “do a Faulkner”, the other two laughed. Even though Faulkner in 1946 was one of three finalists for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award (second to Rhea Galati), he was by most other standards the single most important Southern American writer of his day, but Wesson had a card up his sleeve. Not only had he been Faulkner’s agent when Faulkner was struggling to publish Flags in the Dust, but it was Wesson who for fifty dollars a week pared down Faulkner’s novel for the demands of Harcourt, Brace. For two weeks, while Faulkner sat nearby writing The Sound and the Fury, Wasson cut almost a fourth of the book, and Harcourt, Brace published the truncated version on January 31, 1929, as Sartoris. Some might say that Ben Wesson was calling in a debt, but for whatever reason, in late February, 1948, Wesson traveled with Carter to Oxford for an evening at Rowan Oak. Faulkner, “at-first-reticent”, gradually warmed his visitors, who left with an original manuscript, a “horse race piece” Faulkner suggested they call “A Long Dangling Clause from a Work in Progress.”

On March 1, Faulkner reported his commitment to his agent, Robert K. Haas: “Hodding Carter and an old friend of Mine, Ben Wasson, have what they call the Levee Press, at Greenville, Miss. Three times a year they get out an issue, which is sort of a colophon thing: a single story or article, limited number. I am letting them have the section of the big mss. Which Ober offered to Partisan Review and was declined. It will resemble a special edition pamphlet, bound of course, signed by me, to sell at $2.50. I get 25%. This is all right with Random House, isn’t it? The section is about 80-100 pages typescript. They will call it Section (of from) Work in Progress. I think. I want to do it mainly to confound the people who say nothing good out of Miss. The Press is less than a year old, is already getting known even though in slightly precious circles, like Yale reviews etc. Its foundation is Carter’s Greenville daily newspaper. His name is familiar to you, probably: lecturer, liberal, champion of Negro injustice though no radical, no communist despite Bilbo and Rankin.”

So it was with these commitments an announcement was made in the Commercial Appeal on May 2, 1948: “The Levee Press probably will be doing some celebrating about that time also (2nd week in May with publication of Cohn’s Where I Was Born and Raised), announcing books by Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, to be issued by the Greenville house. That won’t hurt the Levee Press, either, starting off with a pair of names such as Welty and Faulkner, for those are two writers highly esteemed in the English speaking world. The Levee Press may turn into an important venture in the American publishing world. It got off to a modest beginning about a year ago with a short story by Shelby Foote.”

For the Welty book, Carter stepped up his game considerably. Always the consummate newspaperman, he purchased a Jansen type plate that he had admired in certain Knopf publications. With no local bindery available, he contracted that job to a publishing company in Texas Dickens. Carter also hired local artist Elizabeth Calvert to design the colophon, a stylized “L” bracketing a river steamer, which was ensconced beneath those of Welty and Faulkner (Percy died in 1943). Ken Haxton designed and drew the Picassoesque/art deco guitar for the terra-cotta cover and chose for each of the seven section headings musical motifs from the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, Recuerdos de viaje, “En la Alhambra”.  Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1949, Charles Poore called the volume a “handsome example of bookmaking”. Music from Spain was incorporated into Welty’s third collection of short stories, Golden Apples, published by Harcourt, Brace in 1949. Welty’s 25 per cent of the $2.50 take was the price of literary notoriety in Mississippi at the time, but on the current market a (quality) copy of Music from Spain published by the Levee Press sells for $1000, a distinguished association copy, inscribed and signed by Eudora Welty, to authors Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon: “To Caroline + Allen/ with love/ from Eudora”.)

Though Levee Press’s relationship with Eudora Welty is undocumented, Faulkner’s exchanges are unsurprisingly high-profile, with vibrant accounts provided by both Carter, in Where Main Street Meets the River and Wasson, in Count no ‘Count, given that the author was awarded the Nobel Prize during the publishing process. Carter, Wasson and Haxton shortened the title of the Faulkner manuscript to Notes on a Horsethief. “It was good,” Carter claimed, “even though a few readers have since complained that they never before had read thirty thousand words divided into only three sentences.”  Again, Levee Press extended its resources for Notes on a Horsethief. Elizabeth Calvert’s flowing, linear artwork for the rich, Sherwood green cover and the endpapers, described by Jean Stein as “horses in flight”, are striking and dramatic. Horsethief is arguably Levee Press’s highest achievement both in terms of art and letters.

Notes on a Horsethief was printed on November 4, 1950, and the following January, on the 23rd, Estelle Faulkner phoned Carter, telling him that her husband had decided that there was no sense in unpacking the nine hundred and fifty books he had received the month before for signing only to ship them right back, and he had put the unopened crate in his station wagon early that morning and was on his way to Greenville.  Carter alerted Wasson, who “smuggled” Faulkner into Hodding’s office at the Delta Democrat-Times, sent out for the crate of books, and an ad hoc assembly line was organized with Wasson opening the books for a signature, Faulkner—standing, in a half-crouch—signing and numbering them and a young woman from the bindery took it from him to blot the signatures and replace them in the box. Carter sent out to Al’s Café for beer. “Hospitality dictated that I do something for a man who had driven one hundred and twenty miles just to stand in my office and sign his name to copies of a book for which he could have received far more than our limited edition’s twenty-five percent royalty could bring him at six dollars a copy,” Carter wrote, recording “for the factual-minded” that Faulkner’s ration of signed books to beers turned out that day and the next morning to be “sixty volumes of Faulkner to one bottle of Budweiser.”

Notes on a Horse Thief was published scarcely a month before Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950. The nine hundred copies sold out quickly, and soon copies were selling for as high as $25 in. Irving Howe, reviewing this “privately printed and fabulously pieced story” in The Nation, said it was “a bad piece of writing,” but Charles Poore in the New York Times Book Review, called it “at once a brilliantly told story of a manhunt and a subtly woven allegory on man’s fate.” Notes later became a section in Faulkner’s much-belated Pulitzer winner, A Fable, with gracious thanks from the author to Levee Press for permission to reproduce the material.

Choosing the next work to be published proved problematic; Carter, Wasson and Caxton intimated later that it had been their intention to publish Mississippi writers exclusively, but in the end it just turned out that way. In fact, Carter was considering publishing a book of poems by John Gould Fletcher of Arkansas that had been turned down by his New York publisher, but at the last minute the decided to print them after all. Wasson wrote to Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Robert Penn Warren, but none had a manuscript of suitable length ready for publication. Writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, who Gertrude Stein had appointed her literary executor, sent some unpublished works by her, but the three principals of Levee Press found them so mystifying that they returned them, regretfully, to a subsequently indignant Van Vechten. Unknown writers (including Greenville son Howard Mitcham jly) submitted hundreds of manuscripts, but none of them seemed good enough.

The shadow of William Alexander Percy looms large in Greenville, and Carter, Wasson and Haxton all knew the man well and admired him immensely. Percy died in 1942, and Knopf published The Collected Poems of William Alexander Percy in 1943, with a second edition the following year. Yet Ann Stokes, who claimed to have worked with Percy in editing the poems for the collection, claimed that she had variant forms of some of the published poems that should be printed, and insisted with no small degree of persistence that Hodding Carter publish these poems as well. Carter felt some degree of obligation to Stokes, who sold him the land on which he had built his new Feliciana house. Ben Wasson thought publishing Percy’s poetry was redundant and the book would not sell, and Carter, while engaged in a lengthy and complicated correspondence with Alfred Knopf, whose company held the copyright to the Percy poems, actually went so far as to ask Knopf to deny him permission to reprint the poems, Knopf consented, giving Carter no excuse to refuse Stokes’ nagging.

Of Silence and of Stars, with a forward by Carter, edited by Anne Stokes, decorations by Elizabeth Calvert, was issued in mid-1953, the title taken from the poem “Home” (“I have a need of silence and of stars…”). It is a handsome volume, with a deep blue cover featuring a sketch of herons somewhat similar but not as striking as the horses on the Faulkner cover, and the end papers are illustrated with drawings of cypress in a bayou. A note on the dedication page is a quote from Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech. Stokes dated each poem and divided them into three groups: those written before 1915, those written between 1915 and 1920 and those completed after Percy’s World War I experiences. Six hundred and fifty copies were printed, and while each copy was numbered, of course they are unsigned.

Although Ben Haxton placed “The Levee Press” on the title page of his 1997 work The Undiscovered Country as a tribute to the spirit of the enterprise he shared with Carter and Wasson, Of Silence and of Stars proved to be the last book issued by Levee Press. Carter toyed with the idea of publishing “lost literature” of the South, particularly a stirring antebellum courtroom plea that Natchez lawyer Sargent S. Prentiss made in a Kentucky court to save the lives of three Mississippi planters involved in a bloody brawl while attending a wedding, this idea never came to fruition, and after failing to get a manuscript from Tennessee Williams, the Levee Press passed out of existence. Carter, Wasson and Haxton all had other, more pressing involvements, and Wasson, evidently the principal behind the publishing venture, clearly lost interest after the Percy work was foisted on the press. Still, the output of the Levee Press is a high-water mark in the publishing history of Mississippi and a notable achievement that’s likely never to be duplicated in this state or any other.

 

Engel on Welty

Jackson native Lehman Engel (1910-82) was a composer and conductor of Broadway musicals, television and film. Engel worked as musical director for the St. Louis Municipal Opera for a number of years before moving to New York to conduct on Broadway. He won 6 Tony Awards, and was nominated for 4 more. 

Among other works, Engel wrote The American Musical Theatre: A Consideration, the first book to discuss in detail the writing of a Broadway musical, the elements that went into it, and the art of adapting plays into musicals. In his autobiography, This Bright Day, Engel provides an endearing profile of his friendship with Eudora Welty.

It’s strange how people in a small town know each other, speak in passing and not really know one another at all. Although I had met Eudora Welty in Jackson before either of us went away to school, it was not until several years later in New York, when a group of Jacksonians were there each simultaneously pursuing various schoolings, that we had first real contacts. Eudora was at Columbia along with Dolly Wells and Frank Lyell, who had first introduced me to Eudora in the Livingstone Park Lake. I was at Julliard. We changed to meet here and there. I think it was at Norma and Herschell Brickell’s (also from Jackson) where all of us, including Nash Burger, whose father used to play cards with my father, often went.

Each summer all of us went home to swelter, and there the threads grew stronger. There were about five such summers before I began staying on in New York, with work to occupy and to pay me. But at home, Frank, Eudora, Hubert Creekmore, and I used to meet at Eudora’s, and we formed the Night-Blooming Cereus Club, the total membership of which sat up to see the glorious white flower with the yellow feathery center bloom. The morning after, it looked like a swan with a broken neck. Those summers are jumbled together in my memory. During on of them Eudora did some letter-writing for me. Perhaps it was at another time that she took many snapshots. Several of them are among the best any photographer ever took of me. I have one of Eudora, we really invented “camp”, sitting in a tree, a Spanish shawl around her shoulders and on her face an uncharacteristic expression of world-be disdain.

With the passing of time, many things happened to us separately, and we seized every opportunity to communicate and to be together. On my visits to see my family perhaps twice a year—and more often in my parents’ failing days—Eudora was, as she is today, always available whenever it is possible for me to get away from family and family friends. To insure our being together to talk without interruption, she usually picks me up in her car—never a fancy one—and takes me for a ride just anywhere away from everybody else. At her house or mine while my mother was still alive, or at any of my cousins’, Eudora always enjoyed her bourbon and I my scotch.

She has endured a great deal. Her father died many years ago, but her mother lingered in poor health for some years. When finally it became necessary for Eudora to put her in a nursing home in Yazoo City, more than an hour’s drive from Jackson, Eudora drove to see her nearly every day. During those days she developed the habit of starting her work at 5 a.m. so tht she could spend several hours of writing without interruption. She still retains that habit. Very shortly before her mother died, Eudora’s two brothers—both married and each living in his own house—died within days of each other. I have seldom heard her refer to any of this, and what suffering she experienced she kept as her very own.

She is selfless, simple, timid, unworldly, and dedicated to her work. She has had every possible honor and success heaped on her, but nothing has ever changed her lifestyle or her nature. She lives in Jackson—the only place where she feels comfortable—travels when it is necessary only on trains (if possible), and speaks so quietly as to be often in audible. She lives in her parents’ house, which is very nice and devoid of any fanciness. It has two stories made of dark-red-to-purple bricks, and Eudora lives as she prefers—alone. The front yard has large pine trees and the house is surrounded by japonicas (camellias) of all kinds and colors. Behind the house there is a lovely garden containing more camellias and gardenias. The garden is no longer as well manicured as it once was, but I imagine Eudora prefers it that way. Now devoid of family responsibilities, she works consistently and hard. As she prefers never to discuss her work-in-progress, I seldom ask her what she is doing.

If I have given any notion that, like Emily Dickinson, Eudora is a recluse, let me assure you that she is not. She has many old friends, all of whom respect her privacy, and everyone in Jackson is deeply proud of her distinguished achievements.

LEFT: I snapped this picture of Eudora Welty with her camera. Frank Lyell was the Señor; Eudora, the unwitting inventor of camp, was herself above it all. RIGHT: Taken on a summer vacation in Jackson by Eudora Welty. I was about twenty.

The Cereus Society

Eloquence and concision are scarce in academic writers, but Suzanne Marrs achieves it with aplomb in this passage about Eudora’s gay circle of the ‘30s.

“Though she would join the Junior League in deference to her friends who were already members, Eudora’s interests were rather different and her circle of friends more wide-ranging. Four young men were particularly important to her, and all were iconoclastic sorts. Nash Burger had returned to Jackson from the University of the South and had become a teacher at Central High School, Lehman Engel summered in Jackson while he was studying at Juilliard, Hubert Creekmore was back in residence after attending the Yale School of Drama, and Frank Lyell visited during his summer vacations from Princeton.

During summers of the early thirties, the group gathered frequently at the Welty house to drink and talk and laugh and listen to music—literature and the theater and the New York scene filled their conversations, and they loved hearing both classical music and jazz. They also engaged in activities that Lehman eventually labeled “camp.” When Jackson ladies, for instance, advertised that their night-blooming cereuses would be in flower on a given night and invited one and all to witness the annual bloomings, Eudora and her friends attended.

They went on to name themselves the Night-Blooming Cereus Club and took as their motto a slightly altered line from a Rudy Vallee song: “Don’t take it cereus (sic), Life’s too mysterious.” Years later, in The Golden Apples, Eudora would use the “naked, luminous, complicated flower” as an emblem of life’s beauty and its fragility, and she would have a character repeat what one Jackson lady had said about the cereus bloom, “Tomorrow it’ll look like a wrung chicken’s neck.”

But at the time, none of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club members anticipated such symbolic implications of their activities. For them the cereus was and remained an emblem of good fellowship, of the pleasure imaginative individuals could share if they embraced the world around them.”

Food at Welty’s Wedding

Food rarely plays a significant role in fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. Adam Gopnik, in a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character, which seems to be its predominant use in fiction, Gopnik serves up Proust. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Eudora Welty, whose novel Delta Wedding, in itself the most lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta on the eve of or in the 1920s, a delightful, warm-hearted and spellbindingly-written work, is a Southern (perhaps “the most Southern”) smorgasbord. Though three main meals are described, a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards, people are eating all the time on almost every page of this book, and a listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household during the Coolidge administration. In both instances, the food is a prop, a signature of their collective character, not a judgement.

Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him), licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger Stage Planks, bananas and cheese, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelons and greens.

As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes Welty, who is subtle and understated, it’s easy to miss things; read it again.

 

Jess Jr.’s Library

My father had a soft touch for door-to-door salesmen. I can still see him laid back on the couch in his boxers listening to some guy spell out his hard-luck story. I doubt if any of them left without an order and a couple of dollars in their pocket. We had three sets of encyclopedias and all kinds of serials put out by national publication. Our home was full of books, and I spent hours poring over them when as a boy.

It wasn’t until a decade after he died that I began to explore the other books, the old faded covers and the tattered paperbacks. There I found the father I didn’t know, a man beyond my comprehension as a child, and perhaps beyond me as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place and of my father as well, the contours being set by such things as a raggedly paperback edition of Greek poetry in English translation in which I found the epigram of Simonides that Senator John F. Kennedy cited in his speech at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 1960: “Passerby: Tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service.”

Jess Jr. had a personal connection with the Kennedys, since in his capacity as District Attorney for Lafayette County in 1962 he had to juggle the political ramifications of a grand jury indictment against James J.P. McShane, who led the federal agents who escorted James Meredith, the first African American student at University of Mississippi. The indictment was revoked.

He had a copy of C.H. Cramer’s Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, an American lawyer, Civil War veteran, political leader and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought (roughly from 1875 to 1914), was noted for his broad range of cultural activities and his defense of agnosticism. Another book relating to Jess Jr.’s political leanings on a more local level is Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, a solid nod to his political roots in the hills of north Mississippi.

One of the most puzzling yet astoundingly revealing works I found among my father’s books was Richard Brautigan’s first novel. A Confederate General from Big Sur, published in 1964. Jess Jr. was a student of the Civil War not only as a Southerner but as a politician since its ramifications were being felt with intensity in his lifetime. In Brautigan’s novel, which takes place in 1957, a man named Mellon believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general from Big Sur, California. There is no proof of his existence, although Mellon meets a drifter who has also heard of this general. Mellon seeks the truth of his own modern-day struggle in the United States in light of the Confederacy’s past struggle with the Union. I like to believe my father picked this book up on the basis of its title alone, but read it in its entirety in what was an ongoing effort to keep abreast of the mindset of the nation.

As to other fiction, he had Faulkner’s A Fable and The Town, two very divergent works; Jess Jr. knew Faulkner’s attorney Phil Stone and might have met the writer, but I feel he read Faulkner’s works more out of a desire to understand how this man from Lafayette County came to win a Nobel Prize than for any other reason. He also had a copy of Welty’s Golden Apples, which is puzzling, since of Welty’s works this is more rooted in classical mythology than any other, and my father was very much a student of reality. Like me, perhaps he was just a redneck who came to read old books, and their poems and legends became a part of who he was.

In retrospect Jess Jr. could well be considered a learned man, and as such he was quite different from his peers, who included the political lights of his day as well as an across-the-board array of businessmen and dignitaries but perhaps most importantly people from every walk of life. For all that I have his books, I have little of his life, since his papers were destroyed (purportedly unintentionally) by a relative, so he remains and always will remain a puzzle to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with every fiber of my being.

 

An Old Jackson Barbecue Baste

During the Great Depression, the Federal Writer’s Project assigned many unemployed writers (unemployment being a chronic condition among writers no matter what the economic climate is, trust me) to collect information for a work that was to be called “America Eats”. The national calamity that began with Pearl Harbor halted work on the project, but Pat Willard found the materials six decades later and fashioned them into America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA – the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin’ Feasts That Define Real American Food (2008).

Eudora Welty (who threw in a julep recipe, bless her soul) and Ralph Ellison were among the contributors to this chronicle of America’s regional cuisine, which focused on gatherings such as church suppers, harvest festivals, state fairs, political rallies, lodge suppers and any other gathering where food was a primary element. Recipes for such staples as root beer, pickled watermelon and chess pie abound, as do those for barbecue. This baste is from Pinky Langley, a white man from Jackson. He instructs readers to mix the ingredients, cook for 30 minutes, then baste and turn the meat frequently.

3 lemons sliced
1 pint vinegar
3 heaping tablespoons sugar
1 heaping tablespoon prepared mustard
3/4 pound oleo
1 small bottle tomato catsup
1 small bottle Lea & Perrins Sauce
3 chopped onions
enough water to make 3/4 gallons
salt, black and red pepper to taste

 

 

The Literature of Food and Cooking in the Mississippi Delta: An Overview

When it comes to the literature of food and cooking in the Mississippi Delta, there’s a lot out there; this document only scratches the surface. Though I am including fiction, periodicals and personal accounts such as memoirs, community cookbooks are the keys to food and cooking the Delta, and those keys open a lot of doors.

Ground Zero

The food of the Mississippi Delta is for the most part typical of Southern foods. Some time ago, I made a list of 12 essential dishes any Southern cook needs to know. I ran it by my friends on social media, and it was like I’d thrown a June bug down in a chicken run. It took a month before the dust settled and I was able to nail it down. Here they are:

Buttermilk biscuits
Cornbread
Pimiento and cheese
Fried chicken
Barbecued pork
Pound cake
Fruit cobbler
Cornbread dressing
Chicken and dumplings
Sweet potato pie
Banana pudding
Stewed greens

I consider this a list of representative foods you might find anywhere in the Lower South as well as Mississippi, but in the Delta you have one big distinction, that being the cultural influence of New Orleans; the culinary influence of Memphis is bush league in comparison. One of the most authoritative books on Delta cooking, Bayou Cuisine, has a gumbo recipe on the third page. You’ll find barbecue recipes there too, but you can find recipes for barbecue from San Antonio to Savannah and as far north as Louisville.

Creole was the blanket term for the distinctive foods of New Orleans and neighboring parts of Louisiana in that day, and it wasn’t until the late 20th century when Creole and Cajun cuisine became separate entities. Paul Prudhomme hammered in this distinction, but later I’m going to introduce you to a man who was raised in the Delta who also made clear the difference is important, but another author who deserves mention is Lafcadio Hearn.

lafcadio hearnHearn was born in Greece in 1950. Shortly after his birth, his mother moved to Ireland, where she abandoned him. Then he was abandoned by his father and a great-aunt, his guardian, who sent him to school in France. Then he moved to England, where he received most his education, then Cincinnati, where he began writing for The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, becoming a successful writer of “real life” crime stories, humor and popular songs. He moved to New Orleans in 1877, saying that “it’s time to get out of Cincinnati when they start calling it ‘The Paris of America’.  He lived in New Orleans for nearly a decade. In his time there, Hearn was little known, and even now he is little known for his writing about New Orleans, except by local cultural devotees. However, more books have been written about him than any former resident of New Orleans except Louis Armstrong. Hearn is credited with “inventing” New Orleans as an exotic and mysterious place. Hearn died in 1904.la cuisine creole cover

La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes, From Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine (New Orleans: F.F. Hansell & Bro., Ltd., c. 1885)  is one of the great classics of Creole cuisine. It was anonymously printed in 1885 but its authorship by Hearn is generally accepted. In his brief but intriguing introduction, Hearn tells us that Creole cookery partakes of the nature of its birthplace – New Orleans – blending the characteristics of the American, French, Spanish, Italian, West Indian and Mexican, Native Americans, African Americans and others in the melting pot near the mouth of the Mississippi.

Food in Fiction

Food is rarely mentioned in fiction because writers of fiction are more concerned with the human condition than soups and sauces. Nonetheless, many writers, refer to food, some more, some less, and one of the first classic literary descriptions of a Southern table is from  Gone with the Wind, when they’re all seated around the table at Aunt Pittypat’s eating the scrawny rooster Uncle Peter had caught in the rain, and Scarlett remembers:

How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.

This could be a meal in any upper-class antebellum home including those in the Delta. From another era, Faulkner includes a description of a Thanksgiving meal in Sartoris. Food rarely plays a significant role in Faulkner’s fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. There are four kinds of food in books: Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader. Faulkner falls squarely in the second category:

. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries. [Sartoris (1929), Flags in the Dust, (1973), p. 281)]

delta-wedding-cover1Then we have Delta Wedding. Welty didn’t include a lot of food in most of her fiction; you have the green tomato pickles in Why I Live at the P.O., for instance, but she wrote introductions for four cookbooks: The Country Gourmet, by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in 1960; The Jackson Cookbook, published by the Jackson Symphony League in 1971; The Southern Hospitality Cookbook, written by her friend and neighbor Winifred Green Cheney in 1976; and Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, written by Hosford Fontaine in 1981. Welty also knew the importance of food as a significant element of human character, and in Delta Wedding, people are eating all the time. It is after all a wedding.

The foods mentioned include: “Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane, homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it, the patty cake gift for George Fairchild to eat with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him, licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger stage planks, bananas and cheeses, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”:, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopias (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelon and greens.”

Memoir: Trials of the Earth

Read this book, and the next time you’re having a bad day, think back to this woman’s life. Mary Hamilton was a teenager in Arkansas in the early 1880s when she met and married Frank Hamilton, an Englishman who was manager of a lumber camp charged with clearing the forests of the Delta. Her straightforward narrative details cooking for large groups of lumberjacks, children’s births and deaths, impermanent homes in camps and farms, loneliness, natural disasters and her husband’s death in 1914. This remarkable memoir owes its existence to Helen Dick Davis who with her husband Reuben Davis wrote two works of fiction set in the early Delta, Butcher Bird (1936) and Shim (1953). She met the elderly Mary Hamilton in 1931 and encouraged her to set down her recollections of life in the Mississippi Delta backwoods during the latter part of the 19th century. Mary Hamilton died in 1936, or thereabouts; I couldn’t find an exact date. Rejected by Little, Brown in 1933, the manuscript, edited by Davis from Hamilton’s handwritten original, resurfaced in 1991. Davis copy-edited it and approved its publication before her death in 1992.  Mary Hamilton may not have had an education but she was a capable writer. She came into the area east of the Sunflower River in 1897.

Camp life was always either a feast or a famine. That week Frank killed a bear that weighed 250 pounds dressed. I cooked bear meat every way I could think of, and we sent the (neighboring) Minkus camp some. I didn’t cook it every meal, as we got a beef or a hog from Lemaster (the provisioner?) every week and corned beef by the barrel from New Orleans. We treated our men so well during the feast days that when the famine days came on because of bad roads or high water or misspent goods, they understood it wasn’t out fault, and never grumbled. Those men were the bravest, biggest-hearted men, and from those common work-men came some of our richest citizens in the Delta. They took advantage of the cheap lands, took care of their money, and fought their way through a wilderness to make this country what it is today, the garden spot of the South. (p. 84)

Periodicals

The Delta had two historic publications: Delta Review (Winter 1963-64)-v. 6, no. 9 (Nov./Dec. 1969); the self-titled “Magazine of the Mid-South”, and  Delta Scene (Nov. 1973- 1986?). Now, Delta Scene and The Delta Review were more concerned with literature and cultural matters. Food was not a big topic for them, and it really wasn’t for most magazines and periodicals back then, with one exception, which I’ll discuss shortly. But in Delta Magazine (2003—present), not only is food a predominant theme, but yes, they put out a cookbook. Then there’s Progressive Farmer and Southern Living, both of which have a long history of readership in the Mississippi Delta.

Progressive Farmer was founded in Winston, North Carolina in 1886 by North Carolina native Leonidas Lafayette Polk (1837–1892; a Confederate Army veteran. After Polk died in 1892, Clarence H. Poe from Raleigh, NC took over as editor in 1899 and in 1903, he and three partners purchased the publication, taking it from a newspaper to a magazine with 36,000 subscribers by 1908. The magazine soared to a circulation high of 1.3 million by the 1960s.  From the pages of Progressive Farmer rose the largest and most successful regional publication in history. In 1966, the management, led by Emory Cunningham and the editors of Progressive Farmer launched Southern Living magazine fashioned after the lifestyle and home life section in the magazine. The Progressive Farmer had extended its appeal among suburban housewives, and that segment of its circulation received the new magazine, Southern Living to establish its distribution and advertising rate base. Southern food was, is, and always will be a predominant theme in Southern Living. I’ve not yet gone through to find articles and recipes that mention the Mississippi Delta, but that would be a good week’s work if not more.

Newspapers

There are many weekly newspapers in the Delta, The Deer Creek Pilot being foremost among them, of course, and three predominant dailies, the Delta Democrat-Times, founded in 1938, and the metro dailies of The Times-Picayune ( founded 1837) of New Orleans and The Appeal/Commercial Appeal (founded 1841). Food and food writing was very much an incidental subject in most newspapers in the Delta, indeed across the country, until a boy from Sunflower County, Mississippi changed everybody’s mind.

Craig Claiborne

It’s not such a stretch for me to include The New York Times Cookbook in this survey of the literature of Delta food and cooking. If I were to have left Craig Claiborne out of this talk, I’m sure some of you might have pulled a skillet out of your purse and come at me, and I’d be getting ugly emails until New Year’s. Craig Claiborne is a giant in the field of food writing. For all practical purposes, he invented culinary journalism as we know it; if it weren’t for Claiborne, the Food Network wouldn’t exist, which might make some people happy, but broadcast and print media of this genre generate millions upon millions in revenue every year.  He discovered and promoted chefs as cultural and media personalities – Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme among many others – helped publicize the West Coast/James Beard movement and introduced Americans to nouvelle cuisine. Claiborne also reveled in a “pan-global eclecticism”, promoting the cuisines of China, Mexico and Vietnam (during the War), among others. Claiborne was the first to mention tamales as one of the few street foods in the Delta, and the stature of his authority had a great deal to do with establishing the quality as well as the significance of Southern foods across the nation.

claiborne southern cooking cover PPTClaiborne’s legacy is evident today in the treatment of food as an important media subject. He created food journalism, and his sheer adventurism still informs our attitude towards food and cooking. The fact that he is from Sunflower County is simply mind-boggling.  When it boils down to it, though, Claiborne might best be described as the right man in the right place at the right time. His hiring as the first male food editor of a major newspaper came about as the result of crass opportunism if not (as is hinted) chicanery.  Craig Claiborne knew that Turner Catledge, the managing editor of the Times, just happened to be an old Mississippi boy, who just happened to have gone to Mississippi State. Claiborne spent a year and a half at State (1938-39), was tapped by Pi Kappa Alpha, but he hated it. But during his interview with Turner Catledge, who graduated from State, Claiborne now suddenly remembered it with sugar-coated nostalgia. Claiborne found out that Catledge stayed in the dorm called Old Main, also known as Polecat Alley, and Claiborne suddenly remembered that dang if he hadn’t too! Of course he hadn’t, but the boy needed a job. He was hired in April, 1957. (McNamee, p. 52)

Claiborne set the tone of American culinary culture for two decades and beyond. He became America’s unquestioned authority (his columns went directly to print; no editor) on the full culinary spectrum of foods and restaurants, chefs and cookbooks. He wrote and co-wrote many best-sellers, first and foremost The New York Times Cookbook. You just can’t find exact figures on copies sold of any work, and I’m not sure why. Claiborne got all the copyrights to the work, which was pretty much the basis of a very large fortune.

For all that I admire Claiborne, I just don’t trust him when he’s talking about himself. Even his confessions of being molested as a child somehow seem a bit melodramatic, perhaps a justification of his own homosexuality, as if to say, “It’s not my fault.” Claiborne’s ill-advised 1982 autobiography tells more than you want to know about Claiborne, but leaves a lot of questions.

Howard Mitcham

mitcham bowler PPTNow I want to introduce you to a man who I’m confident most if not all of you have never heard: Howard Mitcham. Mitcham was born in Winona, but his Delta credentials are impeccable.  James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born 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. Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. After graduating high school (year!), Mitcham moved to Vicksburg and began attending Louisiana State University.

Mitcham made his first visit to Cape Cod as early as 1948, and began living in New Orleans sometime in the early 60s. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown. Anthony 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.”

Mitcham’s best-known work in my part of the world is Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), arguably the most embracive and best-written book about the food and people of southern Louisiana. The exuberance of this work needs many readings to encompass. In Creole Gumbo, Mitcham celebrates his love for the kaleidoscopic, carefree world of the Crescent City: its food, its history and, astoundingly, given that Mitcham was deaf from the age of 16 from spinal meningitis, its music. Like any knowledgeable writer on the subject — Paul Prudhomme, for instance — Mitcham takes great pains to distinguish between Creole and Cajun, two distinct populations often erroneously lumped together by less astute writers and epicures.

Mitcham died at the age of 79 on August 22, 1996, at Cape Cod Hospital. Mitcham once told Donnels he’d like to be buried in a Truro, Mass., cemetery beside an old clam digger friend of his, but at another time Donnels said, “We were sitting in Pat O’Brien’s, and he said if ever he died, he would like to be cremated and have his ashes scattered through the ventilating fan of the ladies room there.” Mitcham’s ashes were spread over the ocean off Cape Cod.

Granted, neither Claiborne nor Mitcham lived long in Mississippi, but the years they did spend here were formative, and the significance of food in their lives, their family’s life as well as the life of the community, perhaps even the region itself, made a profound impression. Diametric as their culinary careers were, each one had its roots in the Delta.

Community Cookbooks

By far the most important literature for the foods of the Mississippi Delta are community cookbooks published by various organizations, the earliest dating from 1912. These cookbooks are the best historical record of foods and cooking in the region; not only that, but many if not most of them contain far more than just recipes: you’ll also find historical information about churches, or schools or social organizations (ladies clubs, Rotary, etc.) that were very much a part of the town or city of their time.

This is the earliest cookbook I could locate from the Delta, the Twentieth Century Cookbook/Tried and True Recipes by the Young Women’s Guild of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Greenville, January, 1902.  The introduction refers to “A number of these (recipes) which accomplished cooks will find new and pleasing are contributed by well-wishers in New Orleans, justly famed for its cuisine Creole (note Hearn’s title here). We believe these Creole dainties will be found unique and as useful as the more common ones used to make this Greenville cook book a thoroughly complete and valuable aid to its friends and purchasers.” The book sold for fifty cents, which was a lot in those days.

In Jackson, people make a big deal of the white fruitcake that Eudora Welty wrote about in her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, first issued by Symphony League of Jackson in 1971 and followed by a well-deserved 30th anniversary issue. In a pamphlet issued many years later, Eudora greatly expanded on the original recipe. On page 9 of The Delta Cookbook, you’ll find recipes for a white and a black fruitcake. Only the black fruitcake has whiskey in the recipe, but the white fruitcake recipe in The Jackson Cookbook includes bourbon.

Undoubtedly the best-known cookbook to come from the Mississippi Delta is Bayou Cuisine (1970).  Sales figures on books are hard to come by; usually only the publishing house will have them, and when I called St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Indianola asking about sales on this book, they were appropriately ambiguous. A figure of “over 100,000 copies sold” is mentioned in the 1997 sequel, Best of Bayou Cuisine, but I consider that figure very low indeed. Another Delta cookbook stands out as a significant work for a higher reckoning of merit. The Sharecropper,  put out by the Central Delta Academy Parent-Teacher organization in 1987, elevates the community cookbook to the realm of art. In her later years, Ethel Wright Mohamed was known internationally as the Grandma Moses of stitchery. But this native of Fame, Mississippi, spent most of her life raising a family and tending to customers at the store she ran with her husband, Hassan Mohamed, in the Delta town of Belzoni. When Hassan passed away in 1965, Ethel picked up a needle and embroidery floss and began documenting her life: Hassan telling folktales to the children; their housekeeper, Mittie, tending to the stove; the ledger she kept at H. Mohamed General Merchandise. She called her embroideries “memory pictures”. In 1974 one of Ethel’s memory pictures was featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. Ethel passed away in 1992.

I have composed a complete bibliography of community cookbooks from the Delta, but you should also be aware that  a fellow named Andrew Haley, an associate professor of history at USM, who won a James Beard Award (the Pulitzer of the food world) some years ago, has begun a website devoted to Mississippi community cookbooks. The food and cooking of the Mississippi Delta is not as distinct and certainly not as famous as its music, but it is a vital element of life for its people, and should be considered as much a portal to the history and essential nature of this fascinating region as any other legacy of its character.