Jess Jr. was an expressive soul with little reserve, a candor celebrated by many, but trying for my mother.
It was especially difficult when they went to the movies, since my father’s tastes in films resembled those of a little old lady’s rather than a middle-aged war vet and seasoned attorney.
She said he would hear about these movies from a slew of waitresses, secretaries, and beauticians–Daddy never passed a beauty parlor without going in; he said it caught the girls at a disadvantage–who kept him up with the latest Hollywood gossip.
So whenever they went out of town he’d drag her to see Peyton Place–“It’s bad Faulkner!)–Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Daddy had a lot to say about the legal issues in that one) and Madame X, which has his favorite courtroom scene.
“My God, Barbara! Can you imagine what she must be going through!?” he’d say in a clearly audible aside as Lana Turner took the stand. “Why doesn’t she say something? That judge would let her off in a heartbeat if she’d only say who she is!”
Mother never responded, stared with resignation at the screen, studiously avoiding the chilling glances of others. Some scenes reduced Daddy to great heaving sobs, like when they had to pull Susan Kohner off Juanita Moore’s coffin at the end of Imitation of Life.
His only child to inherit this sense of cinematic drama was my sister, Cindy, who bolted out of a Memphis theater during The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue, screaming, “She’s gonna get me!” before we finally caught up with her.
Jess Jr. was charismatic, spontaneous, and imbued with a zest for life. This made his wife, my mother Barbara, very happy, but kept her in suspended apprehension.
She told us the story of their invitation to a party at a prominent home in Oxford. Barbara was nervous, but Jess took great pains to assure her that as district attorney he worked with the host, a judge.
Once they reached the door, Jess turned to Barbara, winked, and said, “Watch this.” Then he rang the bell.
“My heart just sank to my shoes,” she’d say. When the door opened, Jess walked in, raised his arms in the air, and said, “We are trying to have a prayer meeting in the house down the street, and your drunken carryin-ons are disrupting our communion with the Lord God Almighty!”
This being when Mississippi, was dry, the assemblage of well-heeled Oxonians and semi-reputable Ole Miss academics froze. Mother said she could hear the traffic on the Square .
She was about to die when the host stuck his head out the kitchen door and said, “Jess, quit scaring the hell out of everybody, get a drink, and get Barbara one, too. God knows she needs it.”
My family’s New Year’s celebrations always included fireworks and black-eyed peas. Many of the fireworks were left over from my father’s superb Christmas collection, which contained the usual array of bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers, but he always had a few fire fountains and a loud sparkling rocket or four put away for the last night in December.
The peas, which we had on the table pretty much year-round, assumed an incandescence all their own that night as signatures of memory and rapport.
Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country. Among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.
In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endures as evidence of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage.
This is another recipe I made at the Harvest Cafe in Oxford, a vegetarian restaurant on the corner of Jackson and South 10th. On the brunch shift, I’d make soup specials, which was always a challenge, because the black bean chili was outstanding and one of the most popular dishes.
Under duress, I rose to the occasion and in a memorable effort made a gumbo using black-eyed peas. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes seemed a good combination for our clientele; most people who ordered soup wanted something warm and filling around Sunday lunch time, and this recipe seemed a good alternative to the favorite chili.
My idea received a guarded reservations; when my boss, John Anderson, asked me what he needed to put on the blackboard as the soup of the day, I said “black-eyed pea gumbo.” He blinked his eyes behind those big glasses he wears, slowly nodded his head and said, “Okay”, which in my experience with this gentle man I recognized skepticism of a profound and imponderable nature.
Jennie Lee, my co-worker, asked me if I’d lost my mind, but she’s from Charleston, was more perloo than gumbo. She also didn’t sign my paychecks.
Besides, the dish was well underway. I’d made a good brown roux with vegetable oil and our lightest flour, added minced garlic, chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. This primordial goo I combined with a good base made with vegetable stock, basil, thyme, oregano and bay. Not only that, but I’d been soaking the peas since happy hour the day before, and they were simmering on a back eye. I also had two packages of organic okra stashed in a refrigerator in the back; these were expensive contraband (imagine the price of a frozen package of organic okra in 1995 Mississippi), but essential to my enterprise.
The okra I rinsed under warm water before adding it to the pot to relieve it of ropy-ness. The peas I drained but kept the liquid. After adding the peas and okra to the pot, I started adding the liquid to achieve a good consistency (I like it thickish, but with a good juice) then added two small drained cans of diced tomatoes that I’d smuggled in from James’ Food Store. Once that was done, I began adjusting the seasonings, and finally put the gumbo in a serving pan on the line.
Of course, John ordered the first bowl. His critique was just as laconic as his first, but delivered with a smile, which I took as a positive sign. This interpretation was confirmed when the orders started coming in, many for the gumbo. This earned me a grateful nod from my co-workers, since pouring something in a bowl and sending it out the window is one of the less stressful acts you can perform in a busy kitchen.
Before the end of the shift, John was gracious enough to come into the kitchen and say, “They loved your gumbo. How did you make it?”