Eulogy for Tom

For those of you who knew Tom well, it should come as no surprise that he left very specific and detailed instructions to the conduct of his funeral; in three single-spaced typewritten pages, Tom covered everything from boutonnieres to backhoes. We have done our best to adhere to his wishes, but I can’t help but feel that he’s somewhere taking notes on our shortcomings.

I’m sure we’ll all catch hell for it one of these days.

Tom wanted words from the heart, but he qualified those as well, wanting me to speak about what set him apart from what he called “the rest of the human herd”. This is why I began by mentioning his exhaustive instructions for this ceremony, because they serve to illustrate the most essential element of Tom’s nature.

Tom Yancy was a perfectionist in an imperfect world. Somewhere along the way, he decided that whoever was in charge of the production was fucking everything up, so he set about putting things right. From his father, Tom inherited a passion for order; from his mother, an accentuated sense of propriety. These were his primary resources in a war against a world filled with sloppy architecture, bad beauty show contestants and other violations against his impeccable and justifiable standards. His epic indignation was a bar by which I and others set our own standards against the dictates of reality .

Tom declared–I don’t think Tom ever really “said” anything–that I read a selection of literary passages, but these three pages of addenda (for that is what they were) have been lost in a tragic act of negligence on my part, so I’ve elected to read a passage by Tom’s favorite author, Eudora Welty. Tom loved Welty because, like him, she was interested in the foibles and eccentricities of people, the quirks of character that make us stand out in what Tom called a herd of humanity of which he was an errant, beguiling shepherd.

“The funeral was what you’d expect if you’d ever seen Polk—crowded. It was hot as fluzions in that little front room. A lot of Jacob’s-Ladder tops and althea blooms sewed on cardboard crosses, and a saliva wreath with a bee in it. A lot of ferns hauled out of creek bottoms and drooping by the time they got ready for them. People, people, people, flowers, flowers, flowers, and the shades hauled down and the electricity burning itself up, and two preachers both red-headed; but mainly I felt there were Peacocks. Mrs. Peacock was big and fat as a row of pigs, and wore tennis shoes to her daughter’s funeral—I guess she couldn’t help it.”

Like Welty, Tom enjoyed telling stories about people; but like his father he also loved to hear stories about himself. I implore you all to go from here and tell your tales of this wonderful, wonderful man.

Eudora on the Rocks

The muse of fiction is a thirsty bawd, especially in the South where the icon of a hard-drinking writer unjustly tars even us most humble wordsmiths with the brush of dissolution. Eudora Welty, every inch a lady, certainly did not fall into this rough-hewn category. Nonetheless, Eudora did enjoy the occasional bourbon. I have it on good authority that Welty and her friend Charlotte Capers, a Jackson historian, wit and essayist, were often to be found ensconced in Eudora’s home on Pinehurst with a bottle of Old Crow. Later, the authority insists, Welty became a convert to Maker’s Mark, and she invariably took it on the rocks with a splash of water.

Eudora lived to a ripe old age, garnering laurels all the way. In her youth, she worked for the short-lived (1935-39) Federal Writer’s Project. Thousands worked on the project, including several well-known authors, many of them women. Fieldworkers such as Welty made about $80 a month, working 20 to 30 hours a week, collecting stories, local histories and taking photographs. They also collected recipes for a project entitled “America Eats”, and most of these recipes and recollections of foods have been gathered together by Mark Kurlansky in his splendid Food of a Younger Nation. Welty’s contributions to “America Eats” are somewhat substantial, and from all over the state: stuffed apples, stuffed eggs, lye hominy, barbecue sauce, a seafood and an okra gumbo, court bouillon, beaten biscuit, Spanish rice, potato salad and, last but not least, a mint julep. Welty writes:

A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magic ingredient, the mint julep. In the fine old City of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in Whitehall, the home of Mr. and Mrs. T.C. Billups. “The drink is refreshing,’ Mrs. Billups says, needlessly enough, “and carries with it all the charm of the Old South when life was less strenuous than it is today; when brave men and beautiful women loved and laughed and danced the hours away, but in their serious moments, which were many, aspired to develop minds and souls that made them among the finest people this old world has known.’ The Whitehall recipe is as follows:

MINT JULEP

Have silver goblet thoroughly chilled.
Take half lump sugar and dissolve in tablespoon water.
Take single leaf mint and bruise it between fingers, dropping into dissolved sugar.
Strain after stirring.
Fill the goblet with crushed ice, to capacity.
Pour in all the bourbon whiskey the goblet will hold.
Put a spring of mint in the top of the goblet, for bouquet.
Let goblet stand until FROSTED.
Serve rapidly.

“Who could ask for anything more?” Eudora adds.

Mystic Mayonnaise

It’s difficult for us now to imagine mayonnaise as exotic, but  Welty remembers its advent in Jackson as an event.

Welty’s use of foods in her fiction brings two notable examples to my mind; the “green-tomato pickle” in Why I Live at the P.O. and the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, not to mention the groaning boards in her Delta Wedding. But she also wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks that I know of, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in his The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was doubtless written in the 1930s.

More on that essay in a later post, but back to her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, which is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor in Jackson, she was unfamiliar with Welty’s work. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. I’m including a part of the introduction here, specifically that section dealing with mayonnaise because it explains to a “t” just how exotic this now-prosaic kitchen item was then.

“As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph. Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch.”

Welty goes on to describe a typical Jackson kitchen in the twenties and thirties, and mentions a great many women who made significant contributions to the local cuisine. If you can find a copy of The Jackson Cookbook, buy it, read about Jackson’s culinary history from a master of her craft and cook the superlative recipes. No wrong could come from it at all.