Pocahontas Garlic

My friend Buddy owns a place in the tiny hamlet of Pocahontas, Mississippi, which is distinguished by archaeological sites of the Plaquemine Mississippian culture dating from 800 to 1300 CE as well as a more recent tee-pee that someone erected in a somewhat misguided–albeit somehow charming–homage to the community’s Powhatan namesake.

Buddy is a handyman, one of the hardest-working people I know, a man who does what he has to do–put up drywall, repair roofs, paint apartments–to keep his land safe, his home in shape and his family fed, the kind of guy who works all day, comes home, has a couple of beers most likely gets laid more often than not and gets up to do the same thing again the next day. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and he’s always bringing me stuff from his garden, tons of tomatoes, okra and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax at other times. Some years ago, in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic that I dried. The bulbs and cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic.

A friend who is better-versed in such matters than me said it’s actually a kind of leek, adding that I was lucky to get a pass-along of it from someone who lives in the country nearby. Buddy tells me that he has to thin his out twice a year, that it spreads all over the place and he swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. Buddy’s pushing 70 now, shows no signs of letting up, and I’ve got the prettiest patch of Pocahontas you’d ever hope to see coming up this year.

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.  Engel wrote among other works 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 this endearing profile of his friendship with Eudora.

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.

A Victorian Russian Tea

The Oaks, one of Jackson’s few surviving antebellum homes, recently celebrated the 207th birthday of its builder, Mr. James Boyd, and during the observance the Colonial Dames, who care for the house and grounds, served an outstanding antique hot tea. I was lucky enough to get the recipe from an officer of the organization, who provided this wonderful memory.

My grandmother’s Russian tea was a treat for the Christmas season. My sister and I were her only grandchildren, and she was our lone living grandparent so she was extra special. In December, we would go to her house and help her make her Christmas delicacies. Unlike my mother, she was a very good cook, and this was a learning event that started when we were preschoolers. We were like little elves in a very primitive kitchen as most kitchens were in the 1950’s; we would juice the oranges and lemons in an old metal device when making her Russian tea, which always made her house smell so warm and inviting when it was heating on the stove. The Russian tea was always served in china cups from her tea service, which was round white porcelain and not glamorous at all; it looked like something from a Walt Disney cartoon. We also roasted pecans and stuffed them in dates rolled in powdered sugar and made salted pecans, custard, meringues and oatmeal cookies.

The Russian tea is a Victorian beverage. My grandmother would make it with her mother, who was born in 1860, when she was a child. I think back then it was more of an event as fresh oranges and lemons were not as plentiful as they are nowadays. Grandmother always said we had too much in our modern world and Christmas at her house was centered more on food, sharing little things, good times with family and friends, and less on material items.

4 big tea bags (I use Luzianne decaf)
12 cups of water
2 cups pineapple juice
1 cup orange juice (cheap canned OJ is best as it is not as strong as Tropicana in a carton)
Juice of two lemons
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons whole cloves

Boil 12 cups water in a large soup pan, remove from heat and immediately add the tea bags. Remove bags in EXACTLY five minutes or the tea will have a ‘bite’ (this is very important) then add everything else. Keep on low heat for a while before serving; it makes your house smell wonderful. I freeze it in qt. Mason jars so I will have it ready at a moment’s notice.

Oysters D’Iberville

D’Iberville, Mississippi bears the name of an explorer, adventurer and soldier who had his portrait painted with a periwig of the Third Order, which was like huge back then. These oysters are topped with garlic and scallions browned in butter and a smidgen of grated Parmesan or Romano. You have to put these in the hottest oven you can conjure, on a flaming grill or if you’re lucky under your salamander. And here’s a tip for oysters in the home kitchen. I have a sack full of oyster shells that I keep clean and use to broil shucked oysters I buy in containers. You’ll not find a more perfect surface for cooking oysters than nacre; not only that, but mother-of-pearl is dishwasher-safe. Trust me.

Native American Place Names in Calhoun County, Mississippi

These place names were collected from the Mississippi Atlas &Gazetteer (DeLorme: 2004), pages 25 and 31; the text is from Keith Baca’s Native American Place Names in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi: 2007). Note that the gazetteer was my only source for the place names, and that I only referenced those in Calhoun County, Mississippi. If you want to know the interpretations of other Native American place names in other areas of the state, then you can probably find Baca’s book at your local library. The only place name I did not find is Oloucalofa Creek, which is crossed by County Roads 284 and 283 in the northwestern corner of the county. The references in the text refer to works that provided the translations/interpretations for specific words. Some of you might find this tedious and pedantic in addition to being predictably pretentious, but trust me I do know people who would jump on me like a duck on a June bug if I didn’t mind my scholastic Ps and Qs.

Kittahutty Creek

SW Pontotoc/NE Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 32 nine mi. NE of Bruce. Halbert (1899, p. 73), using Choctaw vocabulary, derives this name from kitti, “mortar” (a bowl-sha0ped container for pounding or grinding corn into meal), and hutta, “white”. Halbert offers no explanation for the adjective, but Seale (1939, pp. 109-10) speculates that it refers to a mortar made of white stone (white or bleached wood, more likely). It should benoted that this creek is located at least partially within historically Chickasaw territory, and while Chickasaw kitti’, “mortar” is very similar to the Choctaw word, the only recorded Chickasaw term for “white” is tobbi’. Also, the first two syllables of the name resemble not lonely kitti/kitti’, but Chickasaw/Choctaw kinta, “beaver” as well.

Lucknuck Creek

N Calhoun County. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 32 five mi. NE of Bruce, and by Miss. Hwy 9 one mi. NE of Sarepta. Perhaps a corruption of Chickasaw/Choctaw lackna, “yellow”.

Potlockney Creek

SE Lafayette/ NE Calhoun counties, local pronunciation unrecorded. Potlockney is a relatively recent corruption; this stream was formerly known as Pollocona, the derivation of which is uncertain. W.A. Read, using Choctaw vocabulary, suggested several possible sources of this name to Seale (1939, p. 153), but all are conjectural: poli, “flying squirrel” and yakni “country”; or poli, “flying squirrel” and okhina, “river; water course; stream”. (It should be noted that this stream is in historically Chickasaw territory; cf. Chickasaw lakna, “yellow”; yaakni, “country”; and pali, “flying squirrel”.

Sabougla Community and Creek

SW Calhoun/NW Webster counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 9 two mi. N of Bellefontaine, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven miles E of Gore Springs. Cushman (1999, p. 491) claims that this name is a shortened form of (Chickasaw) “Siboglahatcha… [o]riginal, Is-su-ba-ok-la-hu-cha, Horse River People, i.e. [p]eople living on horse river.” (Cf. Choctaw isuba, “horse”, okla, “people” and hocha, “river”.) However, Halbert (1899, p. 75) states that the name is from shohboli’, “smoke” (cf. Choctaw shoblhi, “smoke;smoky; smoking”.

Shuttispear Creek (SHOOT-uh-speer)

N Webster/S Calhoun Counties. Crossed by Miss Hwy. 9 fie mi. S of Calhoun City, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven mi. SW of Calhoun City. From Choctaw shuti, “earthen pot” and probably ista pika, “a scoop” i.e. “pot scoop” or “ladle” (Seale, 1939, p. 167). There is an erroneous local tradition regarding this stream resulting from folk etymology; I have been told that long ago, the creek was the scene of warfare between two tribes. According to this tale, the warriors occupied opposite sides of the stream, “shooting spears across the creek at each other”, hence the name.

Skuna Community and River

S Pontotoc (q.v.)/NW Chickasaw (q.v.)/Calhoun/Yalobusha (q.v.)/Grenada counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 9 on s. side of Bruce. Skuna is apparently from Choctaw iskuna, “entrails; guts” (cf. Halbert 1899, pp. 73-74).

Topashaw Creek (TOP-uh-shaw)

NE Webster/SW Chickasaw (q.v.)/S Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 8/9 two mi. S of Calhoun City,and by Miss. Hwy. 341 six mi. W of Woodland. Possibly a variant of Topisaw (cf.), although Seale (1939, p. 198) speculates that “it is highly probably that there is a connection between Sopashaw and Taposa, the latter being the name of a tribe which formerly lived on the Yazoo River.” The meaning of the tribal name Taposa is unknown (Swanson 1969, p. 192).

Parchman: A Review

Documentary photography has been an instrument for social reform since Jacob Riis, who focused the nation’s eyes on the grinding poverty of New York City slums in How the Other Half Lives (1880), inspiring the work of photographers who seek to depict history as well as comment on society. A branch of this genre, prison photography, is by nature dramatic and controversial, focusing on the human condition in confinement (at times awaiting execution) and though their ability to convey the reality of prison as opposed to the projected feelings of the viewer is dubious, the images are inevitably stark and gritty, grim and sullen.

Taking photos of Parchman Prison is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s a given that the results will be iconic on a documentary level. While it’s arguable that the cruelties and injustices at Parchman are no more heinous than in any other penal environment, this is after all Mississippi’s state prison and carries a particular notoriety for that singular reason. But with Rushing’s Parchman what we have is a failure to communicate; the photos are technically precise, yet without resonance, more substance than style and not edited to bring emotion. The lack of angles, of effective use of light, shadows and contrast is evident; often the quality is purely that of straight-on recording, which in most cases is lifeless and banal, with no finesse and less feeling. The inclusion of text from the subjects (albeit in the form of images) undermines an emphasis on the photographs themselves, leaving us with a definitive visual record of Parchman in the 1990s, which is nothing to deride in terms of an historical document, providing an appropriate companion volume to two significant books about Parchman that appeared in the 90s, Taylor’s Down on Parchman Farm (1993) and Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery (1996), but nothing to acclaim in terms of art.

This is University Press of Mississippi’s second foray into the field of prison photography; in 1997 it published Ken Light’s Texas Death Row, which followed on the heels of Light’s Delta Time (Smithsonian Institution Press; 1995). Yet even given the lack of effectiveness in the photographs, it’s reassuring that University Press of Mississippi is still on top of their game; though it has at times dropped the editorial ball, when it comes to putting together a quality product, University Press can and has given Rushing’s photos good framing.

(Photo copyright Kim Rushing)

Vardaman Swirl Cheesecake

This recipe is fun to make, and the results are sumptuous. Of course sweet potatoes are involved, in this case blended with a fool-proof New York-style cheesecake. You can add chopped nuts to the crust if you like. The cheesecake filling is 16 oz. cream cheese, 2/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and two large eggs. The sweet potato filling is two cups of “candied” sweet potatoes pureed and mixed with 1/2 cup whole milk or cream, 1/2 cup sugar, two eggs and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. The crust is a box of graham cracker crumbs mixed with a stick and a half of melted butter, a cup of brown sugar and packed into an 8″ spring-form pan. Drop dollops of both filling mixtures alternately around the crust, then take a spoon and swirl it around a little bit. Be artistic. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes and cool on a rack for at least an hour before removing from spring-form. Refrigerate for at least two hours before slicing.