This letter comes from a descendant of the Bishop family in the tri-corner area of Calhoun-Lafayette-Pontotoc in Mississippi. It was written by Dock Bishop, who was convicted for the killing of a federal marshal and hanged in Pittsboro, Mississippi, on July3, 1886.
The circumstances of the crime and the atmosphere of the time and place were such that Bishop passed from outlawry into legend, and his story became a fireside tale in the area for generations. The letter is uneven and at times unintelligible, but those are likely for the most part due to my errors as a transcriber, and a sentence may be missing, since this is a poor copy of the original.
A few things to note are, first, the date, which Bishop gives as Oct. the __ 1850, cannot be correct, since Bishop murdered Detective Wise October 2, 1884. Why Bishop gave this date is unaccountable, but duress likely played a factor. The handwriting is in Spencerian script, a Copperplate-based style, widely used from approximately 1850 to 1925, the American de facto standard writing style for most correspondence prior to the typewriter. The use of this script, along with somewhat good—if uneven—spelling indicates some degree of education. The use of “verrie” for “very” is likely due to a familiarity with older versions of the King James Bible, composed when that variant was still in use. The letter does not mention his two co-defendants in the crime(s), Jim Bishop and Bob Lamar, but a certain G.D.A. comes in for condemnation, and the wording hints that Dock is trying to put the finger on him.
Finally, it seems to be that Dock signs the letter “Jeff Bishop,” and it seems reasonable to assume that Jeff/Jefferson may well have been Bishop’s actual given name.
Oxford, Miss Oct. the ___ 1850
Mr. Bill Bishop
My dear cousin, with pleasure I write you this leaves me well and hope this will find you and all the counsel. The same I wrote has as soon as I got back from Pittsboro tho have not heard from him, yet I will not have my trial the 26 of this month for the judge has called in his court and now I will have to say here until March. I think that my case will be misprocessed here and then they will send me to Coffeeville. I fear though I hope that I can stay here where I can be with my friends. I have not seen my counsel in time time cousin I am so troubled now I have a letter from my sister and ma is dead and it is verrie grevous to me to hear
I get my trial and want you to find out all you can for me so I still have no trouble when the time comes for my trial I want you all to write me for I am glad to hear from you all tell Jim that I want him to come to me soon would be glad to read a letter from him and learn all the news. I have been expecting some of you up for some time. I want you to bring me a bushel of potatoes when you come. I hear from my wife each week she is well and in good heart about my cast and has no fears but what I will come home when I have my trial she has some good evidence for me since court. Cousin, I want you to not forget to go to see
I will take it as a favor if you all will do this much for you and you shall never lose anything by it in the future. Give my love to Cousin Mallie and kiss the little ones for me. Tell them I will send them my picture when I go out to court so I can get one taken for them. Tell my little cousin that I got those peaches she sent me while I was at Pittsboro. Would be glad if you could bring them all with you at court here to see me. Tell Hal I don’t think that he has treated me right by not evidencing my card. Cousin, I have a heap to tell you when I have a chance. Tell Henry to not think hard of me for not writing him for I have so much writing to do. I want you all to come around to see me when you can
at Pittsboro this month that I think that I can demand a trial at any time and they are bound to give it to me if my liberties is debared on account of that case being against me there I want you to do all you can here on this case for I think that Jim will be present in his trial in this court and get up all you can in regards to evidence. Let me hear from you as soon as you get this with the news in the community. I hear that G.D.A. was gone and I think he is ashamed of himself and can not stand to face everybody that ever knew him after surviving such lies as he did. He is 8 miles (about) Pontotoc near Cedar Grove. I am your true cousin with love to all the connections.
The culinary history of Jackson, Mississippi is filled with colorful characters, including one who exemplifies the genteel aspects of the city in the early decades of the last century.
Winifred Green Cheney was born into a very old Jackson family; originally from Maryland, the Greens moved to Jackson in the early 19th century. Winifred was born in the second family home at 647 North State Street in 1913. She graduated magna cum laude from Millsaps with a bachelor of arts in Latin in 1933, and on October 25, 1934, after a 7-year engagement, she married Reynolds Cheney, who became one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. The couple had three children: Reverend Reynolds S. Cheney II, W. Garner Cheney and Mrs. Patrick (Winifred C.?) Barron.
While Winifred, in almost every respect, was a model for a well-to-do woman of social standing in the mid-century South (active in her church and in social charities, etc.), in another she was not: Winifred was a writer. In the course of her life, she wrote (about cooking, mainly) for such well-known publications as The National Observer, The Rotarian, Southern World and, of course, Southern Living. She published two cookbooks (both by Oxmoor House), Cooking for Company (1985), and the truly wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976).
Winifred’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a treasure-trove of splendid recipes, but as a whole is a tutorial of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied; the ingredients are often expensive, and the times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, one of the most frequent critiques of the book is how complicated, indeed “fussy” the recipes are, many often calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients.
Many of the recipes are heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as many from “my great-grandmother … from Lone Star Plantation in the Mississippi Delta, written in her fine Spencerian hand.” (“But there were no directions,” Winifred adds. “I found this to be true with most of the old ‘receipts’ in her walnut escritoire papeterie.”) She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors: Odel Herbert’s Carrot Casserole, Vivienne Wilson’s Asparagus and Carrot Escallop, Claudia Whitney’s Meat Spaghetti, Zollie Kimbrough’s Shrimp Casserole, Linda Lacefield’s Apricot Stuffing for Duck, Becky Voght’s Caramel Icing; and many, many more.
Winifred’s cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson as well as the Middle South, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”), and a preface by Eudora herself, “A Note on the Cook” in which she writes:
“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707. Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality.In good weather, but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.
When Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, attending Mr. Weston’s ball, is seated at the supper, she surveys the table with a cry, ‘How shall we ever recollect half these dishes?’ When I sit down to Sunday dinner at Winifred’s, I feel just like Miss Bates. What guest could not? But it now becomes possible for us to recollect the dishes we’ve dined on there. The cook herself has recollected the recipes for them in her own cookbook. It’s like another extension of Winifred Cheney’s gracious hospitality; she has added another leaf to her table.”
This is a recording of Raymond Bailey performing “The Last Train through Vardaman” that Barbara Yancy made sometime in 1975-76. I lost the first part of Raymond’s narrative because the tape was so old and broke at both ends during recording, but I did hear it on the first playback. Raymond begins with saying, “This is ‘The Last Train through Vardaman.’ I remember we were loading the train that day, and my brother said, ‘Pile it high, boys, because this is the last train through Vardaman!’ So, we loaded her up (and away she went!)” The tape has him doing a couple of other songs, including ‘Nellie Gray’ and a version of ‘Casey Jones,’ but it’s too fragile for any further play. The locomotive is the OH&CC Number 9 at Okolona. Listen to Raymond here.
On February 26, 1944, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon syndicate published a panel featuring a tall, austere gentleman in a black suit. The caption beneath read, “Dennis Murphree has been governor of Mississippi twice although never elected to that office. In 1927 and 1943—as Lt. Governor—he became chief executive through the death of the incumbent.”
True, Dennis Murphree was never elected governor of Mississippi, but that’s not to say he didn’t try, running unsuccessfully in three gubernatorial races. Few people ever wanted to be elected governor more than he did, but the political scales in Mississippi never tilted his way.
He was born in Pittsboro, Mississippi, on January 6, 1886, the first child of Thomas Martin Murphree and Callie Cooper Murphree. His father served four years in the Confederate army and two terms as justice of the peace. He was a member of the school board, twice served as circuit clerk, and was twice elected state representative from Calhoun County. Martin Murphree was also a newspaper editor and died during his second term as state representative.
Dennis Murphree assumed the printing and newspaper office at his father’s death. In 1911 he was elected state representative from Calhoun County, Mississippi, the youngest person elected to that office from Calhoun County up to that time. His formal education was limited, but he obtained a vast amount of experience in the newspaper business. He was reelected state representative in 1915 and again in 1919. He married Clara Minnie Martin of Pittsboro. They had three daughters and one son.
Murphree was a fine orator, and in 1920 he was unanimously elected as temporary speaker of the house of representatives to serve during the illness of Mike Conner, the regularly elected speaker. He served thirty days and obtained valuable experience that he later used as presiding officer of the senate as lieutenant governor.
When Murphree ran for lieutenant governor in 1923, he defeated Hernando De Soto Money, Jr., son of U.S. Senator (1897-1911) Hernando De Soto Money, Sr. During his tenure, Murphree helped promote legislation to help the farmers, Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University) was established, and the mental institution in Jackson was moved to Rankin County and later named for the incumbent Governor Henry Whitfield.
In 1925, Governor Whitfield called a meeting in Jackson with the object of adopting “some plan whereby the opportunities, possibilities and resources of Mississippi might be effectively presented to the outside world.” Lieutenant Governor Murphree proposed a plan of a “Know Mississippi Better Train,” a special train to carry representatives of Mississippi, exhibits of Mississippi resources, literature, and public speakers to visit across the country. The first KMB train pulled out of Jackson in August of 1925. Except for four years during World War II, the Know Mississippi Better Train ran every summer until 1948.
When Whitfield became ill in the summer of 1926, Murphree acted as governor much of the time. On March 16, 1927, Governor Whitfield died, and Murphree was sworn in as governor on March 18, 1927. A little over a month later, the levee broke at a ferry landing at Mounds, Mississippi, flooding an area 50 mi. wide and 100 mi. long with 20 feet of water, threatening the lives of almost 200,000 people.
FOR GOD’S SAKE, SEND US BOATS! blared the headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune¸ quoting a plea from Governor Murphree. “For God’s sake, send us boats! Back from the levees, where the land is flooded by backwaters, people are living on housetops, clinging to trees, and barely existing in circumstances of indescribable horror. The only way we can get them out of there is by boat, and we haven’t the boats at present. Please try to make the people of New Orleans realize how urgent this is.”
The disastrous flood of 1927 that almost took Governor Murphree’s life required so much of his time that he was unable to campaign properly. As an additional handicap, he was twice forced by law to call out the National Guard to prevent lynchings in Jackson. Even though he had no choice in either instance, the whole matter was used from one end of the state to the other by his opponent, Theodore G. Bilbo, an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy to arouse prejudice and inflame hatred by his opponent, Theodore G. Bilbo, an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy.
Murphree himself was a personal target of Bilbo’s crude and scathing campaign rhetoric. Family legend has it that when Bilbo died in 1947, one of Murphree’s daughters told him he should not go to “that horrible man’s” funeral, to which Murphree replied, “Daughter, I just want to see them throw a ton of dirt on the son-of-a-bitch.”
In 1931 Murphree ran for lieutenant governor and won. When he ran for governor in 1935 against Hugh L. White and Paul B. Johnson, Sr., he failed to get into the second primary. In 1939 he ran his third successful race for lieutenant governor. As lieutenant Governor Murphree helped Governor Johnson carry out most of his proposed legislation, including free textbooks for the schoolchildren of the state, an increased homestead exemption (from $3,500 to $5,000), and an expanded membership for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning to remove the board from political influences.
Murphree ran for governor the third time in 1943 in one of the most hotly contested gubernatorial races in Mississippi history against former Governor Mike Conner, Thomas L. Bailey, and Lester C. Franklin. Murphree failed to get into the second primary by less than 400 votes. Bailey won the election in an upset.
Then a little more than a month after the November general election, Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., died on December 26, 1943. Once again, Murphree was elevated to the governor’s office to serve the remainder of the Johnson term. He served as governor from December 26, 1943, to January 18, 1944, when Governor-Elect Thomas L. Bailey was inaugurated.
After a life devoted to public service, Murphree died of a stroke on February 9, 1949, at the age of sixty-three. He was buried near his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi.
Jack Myers stood at the forefront of gay rights in Mississippi for over fifty years, running a series of gay bars and clubs in the capital city of Jackson. In this interview Myers talks about the many places he ran and shares his memories of others.
This all started back when I was in high school, we’re talking 1962-63. I finished radiology school, lived in Memphis for a while, lived in Eupora for a while, worked at the state hospital and at the VA. While I was at the VA they sent me to Duke for a year for in-service training, and was hoping for a position in Jackson, but they never got the position open. I gave them 30 days to decide if they were going to give me more money, but they just kept putting it off, so I left after 30 days.
The first gay bar I can recall going to was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. You go down here and you turn on Mayes Street, Cowboy Malone’s used to be right there by the tracks, and there’s a little bitty building on the other side of the track and it was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. As a matter of fact, I had my 21st birthday there. I worked there when I was… it was in ’60-something. I was in X-ray school at UMC at the time. There have always been clubs in Jackson that weren’t openly gay but where gay people were welcome. I remember T.C. Schilling, one of the first people I met when I came out here, he used to own Jackson Commercial College, and he talks of some places that he used to go and one was down there on West Capitol Street, and there was a place off Robinson Road, you know where East Ford used to be? Where Robinson Road crosses Hwy. 80? If you leave here and go out Robinson Road you’ll cross Ellis Avenue, and right before you get to Hwy. 80 on the left facing Hwy. 80 used to be East Ford. You get behind the Ford place and you turn right, there’s a long road that goes through there, and he said he used to go to a place, there was a woman that had a bar out there. He said she’d take up for the gays in a minute, wouldn’t let anybody bother anybody. And there’s a lot of (gay) people I know used to go to the Walthall Hotel downtown. That was in the ‘60s.
I worked at the Sportsman’s Lounge, then he closed that bar and opened a place on McDowell Road where the police shooting range is now. That was all wooded then, it had a drive that went up to this big old house; it was called the Mansion. The guy lived upstairs, and one side of the downstairs was the bar. And if the sheriff’s department or the police came by and two guys and two girls were dancing, they’d just switch partners.
I know when I first came out, on Woodrow Wilson, where you take a left and get on Bailey Avenue, they took several old houses and made them into businesses and there was a place called Chez Pierre’s that was gay-friendly. The Glass Kitchen on Five Points was a popular restaurant. When I was in school at UMC from ’64-66 all of us who were in school would go to Delta Drive because they’d taken a lot of old houses up there and turned them into bars and they had bands, you took your own bottle, they only sold beer. There was the Pepper Mint Twist Lounge, the Hilltop A-Go-Go, the Sirloin Room; the Sirloin Room always had this great band called the Poppas.
I can’t remember the exact year I opened my first bar, but it was in the early ‘70s. It was on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King Drive. And I moved from there downtown to the old Wagon Wheel which was on Capitol and Farish Streets upstairs. The entrance was on Farish. Then we bought the old Amite Theatre. It was behind Jack’s Saloon, it was on the corner of Amite and Roach; they were back-to-back. There was a Dr. Wade Windham who opened a bar there, a straight bar called the City Dump, I think it was. They took old cars and made benches and booths out of them. We sold them all for scraps. We completely remodeled it.
Bill’s Disco (black bar) was on the corner of Amite and Mill Streets there by the train station. It was called the Interchange when we had it. I’m thinking that when the old theatre burned we moved there and called it the Interchange and Bill Rimes ran it for us… well, the old theatre was called Bill’s Disco and it burned in 80-something. And then we moved on the corner across the street to that small building, opened it was the Interchange on Amite. They tore the old Amite Street Theatre down and built that monstrosity in the back; I can’t remember what it’s called (This is the catty-corner building on the corner of Roach and Amite.)
The dance bar on Capitol was Jack and Jill’s. It wasn’t the first bar; it was the first big dance bar. I don’t know if it was this article (in a local paper), but there was also one in the Washington Post that quoted me as saying that I had the first (gay) bar in Jackson, and no, I didn’t. There were bars years before I had one here. There was a girl bar where Amite Street gets to Capitol and crosses Capitol and turns into Robinson Road. I’m thinking that’s where it was. The road that goes by the train station, Amite, comes in (at an angle) there and crosses Capitol. There’s a little bar that sits there, there’s a parking lot out front. There’s been a bar there for years, but there was a girl that had it for a while. Her name was Polly Wilmer. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in years and Harry and I went by the Waffle House to get something to eat and this girl came by and said, “Are you Jack Myers?” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, this is Polly Wilmer,” she said. Oh, my God, I hadn’t seen her in years, and she’d gotten big, huge and she used to be a little tiny thing. We talked for a while; she used to have that bar, it was on Robinson Road, I think, used to be a Waffle House or something that sat right in here. It wasn’t Mississippi Street.
When I first opened Mae’s Cabaret on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King, we got some hassle from the police. I was working at the Raincheck on Northside Drive; going west on Northside drive, you cross over the train tracks and as soon as you crossed over the tracks you took a left and there used to be a brickyard there. The only thing left there was an office; it was very small. It had a nice-sized room in the front, and a nice-sized room in the back, but to get to the back, you had to go through a hallway where the bathrooms were. And then you had the back room, where people could dance. When the police came in, the lady who ran the door would push a button under the desk and a light would flash and everybody would know to sit down. Because in order to have a dance license, you had to have an emergency exit off the dance floor, and there wasn’t a door back there. But one of the policemen said something to Doris about, “We know you have that light,” and she said, “I’m not worried about having a door back there, you know, trying to hem in a queen… (laughter).”
Doris wanted me and her to go into business, I worked with her for a long time, she wanted to open up a bigger place. I think I got a mortgage on my house; I had it paid for. So we opened up the place (Capitol and Farish?), and the police chief said, “The only thing I ask, you know, it’s fine having the show, but I want someone from vice and narcotics to come see the show.” And he did. It was Officer Fitzgerald. After that was over, he said, “Man, I don’t see anything wrong with these shows.” And I said, “Well, I did the right thing, paid the first people off when you told me not to have a show, and sent them back to Atlanta, but it’s not a strip show.” He said, “Well, I see that now, but somebody told us you were going to have a strip show.” That’s when we saw the chief and he said if the church could have their womanless wedding, then we could have a drag show.
When we had the old Amite Theatre downtown, we had a bunch in a pickup came by, they did not get out, just came by yelling stuff out to us. That’s the only incident we ever had like that. We always had off-duty city policemen working for us. Just a uniform; they could wear their uniforms. 95% of our protection was just them being at the bar. If you had an off-duty policeman working for you, you had to carry liability insurance and name the Jackson police department on that policy. That’s how you got to hire them. If you’re going to use a policeman, they want their ass covered. It wasn’t that expensive. It either paid a half a million or a million.
(In Jack’s bars) Momma and Daddy ran the door. And if Momma didn’t recognize you, the first thing she’d say was, “This is a gay bar, you’re welcome, and if you don’t like it or whatever, you can leave. If you cause trouble, we have a policeman here.” If it was someone (like a public figure) who might be looking around to see what was going on, she’d tell them not to be nervous, to come on in. Well-known people who were on the make’d go to New Orleans or somewhere like that where nobody could see them. People would come to me all the time and say, “I saw So-and-so (in this gay bar) in New Orleans.” They couldn’t come out here but could there.
Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a timber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great barrels that held the finest wines of the 1925 Exposition of Paris. But after the lumber was gone, farmers in the area turned to the sweet potato and their intuitions were crowned with success. Vardaman is now the (admittedly self-proclaimed) Sweet Potato Capital of the World.
The distaff side of my family is from Vardaman, and I’ve been eating sweet potatoes my whole life, so for a long time I’ve been sailing along considering myself an expert on the subject. Then here comes this McGreger girl who blows my dinghy out of the water. April McGreger has chops; whereas my father was a lawyer from Sarepta (sue me), she is a sweet potato farmer’s daughter from Vardaman proper.
In her introduction to Sweet Potatoes, the tenth installment in the University of North Carolina Press’ “Savor the South” series, McGreger says, “By the time I was a teenager, I had worked at pulling slips, the shoots that densely bedded ‘seed’ sweet potatoes send up, and had spent a couple of summers riding the ‘setter’ that plants those sweet potato slips in expansive fields. I learned firsthand how eyes and ears and noses fill with dust from the warm, just-plowed earth and how the modern farmer’s schedule is set by nature and financial demands, often at odds with each other.”
People you have no idea how refreshing, how delightful it is to find a book about food written by a genuine human being who has a fundamental knowledge of “farm to table” and not by one of these pompous foodways pundits who don’t know a roux from a rutabaga or a kitchen flim-flam aristo whose closest connection to the earth is trying to grow weed on his daddy’s back forty before flunking out of college and entering culinary school. McGreger is a very fine writer (as we expect of Mississippi’s children) and a scholar to boot, so she takes an appropriately schoolmarmish tone when it comes to sweet potatoes. In her own rhetoric, she poses the question “Is there any food more central to our southern identity than sweet potatoes?”
The short answer is no, and perhaps for that very reason the sweet potato demands definition, particularly as a botanical and linguistic entity. I’ll leave that explanation to April, who does a thorough job of sorting out the Latin as well as the vernacular. She spends some time on the history of this important foodstuff, pointing out the antiquity of its use and cultivation in the New World as well as its introduction to the Old. Central to her narrative is the role of the sweet potato in the culinary history of the American South where it’s been keeping body and soul together throughout the region’s tumultuous history.
McGreger laments, “Once such a prominent food in the southern diet, the sweet potato is now eaten by many only on Thanksgiving in the form of sweet potato casserole or sweet potato pie”, and her selection of recipes is designed to illustrate the versatility of the sweet potato and to provide cooks at every level of proficiency with a means of making them more of a staple in the kitchen”, as well they should be. She chafes at being restricted to only fifty recipes, but to her credit she offers a spectacular variety “aimed to help you refine techniques to develop your own repertoire.” These are arranged in four categories: “Breakfast: Morning Pastries, Grits, Gravy, and Hash”; “Sides and Salads: Vintage Classics and Fresh, Modern Twists”; “Mains, Soups, Stews, and In-Betweens: A World of Flavor”; and “Desserts: A Little Something Sweet”.
Before getting to the recipes proper, McGreger includes a crucial section concerning the selection, storage and preparation of sweet potatoes as well as a description of a few of the most essential culinary varieties (some have been developed as a garden ornamental) and what sorts of dishes they are best suited. Granted most of us have access only to the traditional “moist, orange-fleshed, and sweet” types, but it’s worth knowing other varieties are out there, and if the trend to greater diversity in the marketplace and the proliferation of farmers’ markets continues, finding whites, yellows, purples and heirloom varieties is something to look forward to.
Equally important is her section on selection and storage, since while she recommends buying sweet potatoes “dirty by the bushel, directly from a farmer”, the roots must be cured in a warm, humid environment for a few weeks in order to fully develop their flavor. Most essential is McGreger’s advice on the preparation of sweet potatoes, and since she is clearly the final court of authority when it comes to cooking these vegetables (roots and leaves, it’s worth noting), this section is the heart of her work.
April wryly regrets never winning the Little Miss Sweet Potato crown, but a lot of thought, a lot of time, and a lot of love went into this wonderful work, and in my less-than-humble opinion it establishes April McGreger as not merely a Little Miss, nor even a Queen, but as the Empress of Sweet Potatoes.
During a segment of “Iron Chef”, when one critic told Cat Cora that he didn’t care for her dish, she unhesitatingly asked, “Then why did you eat it all?”
Cat Cora doesn’t pull any punches. Why she invoked Barbara Gordon’s 1979 memoir in this 2015 biography is perplexing; Cora has her own story, which she tells simply and honestly, the story of an orphan from Greenville who grew up in a loving, understanding home in Jackson where food took center stage and become a groundbreaking culinary superstar. Such a Horatio Alger-esque narrative, often provides occasion for self-indulgent whining, but Cat is smart, funny, and resilient. She rolls with setbacks, admits mistakes, and does what she needs to move on.
The details of her culinary education and career as well as behind-the-scenes at “Iron Chef” provide a lot of interest for foodies as well as fans, who will also enjoy reading her honest–sometimes painfully so–account of her own personal journey. In a work of such candor, I expected details that perhaps only I would miss, like what’s the dyke bar near the New Capitol. I particularly enjoyed reading about Jackson’s wonderful Greek community.
Mississippians, Cat is our daughter, our sister, let us embrace and celebrate her. But no matter where you’re from, you’ll like this fun, informative read.
Mississippi is famous as home to many of the most celebrated musical artists of the last century, but few know that Mississippi—and more specifically Jackson—was home to at least three renowned recording companies: Trumpet, Ace and Malaco Records. The Trumpet and Ace labels have long since passed into legend, but Malaco Records, founded by Tommy Couch, Mitchell Malouf, and Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson, is still making music on Northside Drive in Jackson.
“The basic story for Malaco was that we loved R&B music,” Wolf said. “Tommy is from the Muscle Shoals area, and he grew up with all those guys who became big in the recording industry there. When he came to Ole Miss, he started booking bands for the fraternity parties to make extra money. He graduated the semester ahead of me, moved to Jackson and talked his brother-in-law Mitch Malouf into continuing the booking agency. The name Campus Attractions was what he had used, but someone else was using that name, so he and Mitch tossed various names around until his mother-in-law suggested they combine the two names Malouf and Couch into Malaco.”
“I moved to Jackson and we continued our friendship,” Wolf said. “Tommy wanted to open a recording studio, so it started out here in 1967. The first success that we had was with Groove Me by King Floyd out of New Orleans in 1970. The next thing we had was Misty Blue with Dorothy Moore in 1976. In the early 80s, we were the beneficiary of a big downturn in the music business; Stax went out of business, Columbia Records pared back their artist roster,” Wolf said. “TK Distributors in Miami, who distributed our products, went out of business and all of a sudden we had to become an independent record company to get our records out. At the same time, lots of other labels cut back their roster. The artists who were doing blues and R&B didn’t have anywhere else to go, so they showed up here. We could record a record, get it manufactured and get it out, and they could call up anytime day or night. We were a small, close-knit group, so it worked.”
“Z.Z. Hill was our first big hit with Down Home Blues (1982). That was probably the biggest blues/soul album that had ever been released to that date, and here we were, a little bitty company and it cost us $8,000 to do the whole project. That song just exploded. That was like a magnet to all those other folks who were out there. His success brought Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Latimore (stage name of Benny Latimore), Bobby “Blue” Bland, Tyrone Davis and Denise LaSalle. We were at the right place when everybody else was cutting back.”
“We started with gospel in 1975,” Wolf said. “The Jackson Southernaires were a very hot group nationally. The thing about gospel groups back then and now, too, is that they had to be able to take some of their records when they went out on the road to sell them off the stage. And for the Southernaires, being with ABC Records, headquartered at that time in LA, it was hard for them to get the records on a timely basis. Again, they got caught in the cut-backs, too, and we were close by, they showed up, and that put us on the road to being successful in gospel music for a number of years.” But a dramatic downturn followed. “I never expected the record industry to get this bad,” Wolf said. “Piracy and counterfeiting have destroyed the industry. The computer has been a double-edged sword; we’re able to do so many things we couldn’t do before, but it also allows people to devastate your intellectual property rights.”
Burton Doss, Director of Information Technology at Malaco, said, “We had a bad time with the bootleggers; not so much the downloaders, who have hurt us some, but the bootleggers, in our industry, are really hurting us, but Malaco is adapting. Instead of fighting change, we have to embrace it by reaching out with new ventures, anything we can possibly do to reach our audience. We are signing a lot of P&D (pressing and distribution) deals in which the artists themselves do all the marketing and promotion, and we manufacture the product and place it in the major chains. A lot of the larger record labels won’t sign these artists who might only sell 250,000 to 500,000 units; well, we’ll have a party if we sell that much. So we’re signing these P&D deals in urban music,” Burton said. “We also have a lot of gospel artists who are unhappy with their labels who are coming to us to manufacture their product and get it out for them.”
“We have just signed a deal with Heavy D, from Heavy D & the Boyz, who was a big rapper in the 80s and 90s. He has a new album out called Vibes, a reggae album that was nominated for a Grammy Award this year. Lionel Ridenour, who has come to us from Arista Records, knew Heavy D and has a lot of good connections in the music industry. He called up Heavy D, who told him he wasn’t happy where he was at and wanted to look into something else, so Lionel said why don’t you come over to Malaco? We’ve also signed this guy named Ludy out of St. Louis, a rapper in the 90s. And we’ve signed a deal with B-Hamp. He’s got this song called Do the Ricky Bobby which was written up by Entertainment Weekly. When you think of Malaco, you think of the Mississippi Mass Choir, Johnny Taylor, Bobby Bland, so this is different, it’s new territory for us, but we’re excited.”
“We have the largest gospel music catalogue in the world, very good traditional gospel and new artists as well,” Burton said. “We have the Mississippi Mass Choir, Dorothy Norwood, the Georgia Mass Choir, a lot of quartets; we just did an album on the Soul Stirrers, who back in the day were the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke. Our catalogue business, meaning our repertoire of copyrighted songs, is very strong. We license a lot of songs to movies and other venues. We continue to grow the new business into new avenues. One avenue that we’ve started is that we’ve started an online radio station. Chances are, if you were to turn on the radio, you’re not going to hear blues or Southern soul. So we’ve started our own station, which is 24 hours a day, world-wide, southernsoulradio.com. You can hear the song, download it from iTunes and click to buy the album from our Malaco website. We want to make Malaco the one-stop shop when you think of blues, gospel or Southern soul.”
It was Willie Wallace–a jovial man with the presence of Jove–who started me out on the gumbo thing.
Willie was from somewhere down on the Coast, where of course he grew up eating gumbo, whereas in north Mississippi, the only gumbo I’d had was out of a red-and-white can. Willie was a big supporter of the Bean Blossom Bistro and he spent time there helping out. I remember vividly the day when Willie was hunkered down in a corner peeling potatoes, and Carol and I were talking about soups.
I think I was the one to mention a gumbo–mea culpa–and I started talking about how I’d make it and Willie looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “So how did you say you did your roux?”
Well, I tried to bluff my way through, but it was all of about ten seconds before Carol and Willie both started howling, Out of this incident grew a determination to learn how to make a distinguished gumbo. I think I’ve succeeded, too. This recipe makes lots and lots
To begin the gumbo, make about a half cup of roux ( I use a “beer bottle” roux) toss in about three chopped white onions, two chopped bell peppers, and a half a bunch of celery chopped, leaves and all. Stir until the mixture has cooled slightly and the vegetables are coated.
Then add a quart of warm stock. though you’ll find disagreement on this point, chicken stock in various strengths–full for chicken and sausage, weak for seafood–works just fine, dammit. Stir this mixture vigorously until the roux has been assimilated and the mixture begins to thicken. Transfer to a heavy six to eight quart pot, add another quart of the stock and put the pot over a low flame with a buster and stir frequently.
After this mixture has begun to thicken, add another quart of stock, three tablespoons of minced garlic, and another chopped onion. Let this mixture cook until the onions begin falling apart. Then add one pound canned diced tomatoes and a pound of frozen okra–thawed, sliced and rinsed okra.
At this point, add about three heaping tablespoons of dried basil, fresh or dried chopped parsley, a bunch of chopped green onions, two tablespoons of leaf thyme, and a tablespoon each of oregano, black pepper, white pepper, and a teaspoon of cayenne. Blend this very well and adjust your liquid. Leave on low heat for an hour or so, then off the heat and cover.
Take about two pounds of small shrimp (20-25 ct.), and sauté with olive oil and garlic (I tend to have a heavy hand with the garlic; use your own discretion). Add the shrimp to the gumbo mixture. Take about a dozen small (3-5 oz.) catfish fillets (you can use any non-oily fish, but where I come from catfish is good and plentiful). Cut them into one inch chunks and poach until just done. Add to the gumbo mixture along with two dozen poached oysters.
Bring back up to heat, being extremely careful not to scorch the bottom of the pot. (I can’t emphasize the importance of using a flame buster.) If the gumbo seems too thick, add a little more liquid. Adjust your salt and pepper. Serve over rice with a bare sprinkling of filé powder,
To make a chicken gumbo, use a full-flavored chicken stock, omit the tomatoes and add a tablespoon of sage to the spice mixture. You can add sausage to either the seafood or the chicken gumbo, but I prefer it in the chicken. In either case, blanch the sausage first so it won’t get too greasy.
This is my gumbo. It’s a good one because it follows precepts; know the rules before you break them. With presence of mind, you will find your own gumbo.
In January, 2010, a book written and illustrated by a man who lived and worked in Mississippi sold for a record-setting $11.4 million in a Sotheby auction; another copy of the same work sold for $9.7 million this year. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, says he wouldn’t be at all surprised if there weren’t still a folio of Birds of America in Natchez, where Audubon lived in 1832.
“He would have known people down there,” Fred says, “And Natchez had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country before the war, so they certainly could have afforded to subscribe to the book.” Smith knows, since he has spent over a quarter of a century dealing with collectors, estates and institutions as a buyer, seller and appraiser of books, manuscripts and documents of every description, but primarily works about or related to Mississippi, the South and the Civil War; in short, every aspect of our multi-faceted regional history. As a result, he has become a one-man institution in and of himself, the go-to man for anyone in (or out) of the state wanting a set, subset or full collection of volumes of pages you’re unlikely to find at Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble.
John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, has known Smith for over thirty years; he calls Fred a compadre, and after reflecting back to the times when they’d alert one another to a shifty customer, says, “A great used book seller is there to provide information you can’t find anywhere else. Oh, you can google a book on some obscure moonshiner in the Delta, but Fred’s going to tell you if you really need that book at all, and if you’re lucky, he’ll know of a book you ought to have instead of that one. Fred’s father Frank knew the past seventy-five years of the culture of Mississippi, and he handed that down to his son Fred.”
Frank E. Smith was a managing editor of the Greenwood Morning Star, served as an aide to Senator John Stennis, as a member of the Mississippi state senate, in the U.S. Congress, and as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He and Fred began thinking about opening a business in the 1970s. “We figured the state needed a used bookstore. Our literary culture was so important that someone needed to make them available for people here to own and to treasure,” Smith says. “The goal was that we’d pull together an inventory and open up a store in 1983. Then my aunt, who had an antique store in Vicksburg where we’d place books to see how they’d sell, had an accident and had to close her store. All of a sudden, we had a lot of nice furniture. When we opened up, we were half antiques and half books.”
“That first year, Eudora Welty bought a piece of furniture for $700,” Fred remembers. “Now, selling a few books here and there is one thing, but that was by far my biggest sale. I wanted to keep the check, but the furniture was not mine, so I had to go ahead and cash it. Years later, I did two appraisals for Miss Welty, one on the letter that Faulkner had written to her and another on some other correspondence. I called up her lawyer, Carl Black, and asked him if it would be alright to keep one of the checks (for $250) and he said that she’d never know. I kept the check.”
“I don’t always make people happy,” Fred says, though it’s hard to imagine, since Fred has a jovial, Dickensian presence, the proprietor of a modern-day curiosity shop, an unpretentious clapboard building at 926 North Street in Jackson’s Belhaven Heights neighborhood that’s chock-a-block with books, maps and manuscripts. But Fred, because of his unique knowledge and sincere appreciation of Mississippi’s history, literature and bibliographic legacy, is also the premier appraiser of the state’s books, manuscripts, maps and other assorted documents, making him a unique denizen of Mississippi’s bibliophilic Parnassus.
“My job as an independent appraiser is to put a value that I consider to be valid on materials I’m asked to consider. Most of what I do is for tax purposes because people are donating materials for tax breaks. But a lot of folks think their stuff is worth a lot of money just because it’s theirs, and that’s not necessarily the case. I have done many appraisals over the years, and have not been called into question on any of them; people know to call me.”
Hugh McCormick, who started McCormick’s Book Inn in Greenville in 1965, said, “I admire Fred a lot. As far as I know, he’s the only person who occupies the sort of role he does in the Tri-state area. People who come to Fred are looking for something very specific, very hard to find, and more often than not, he’s the only one who knows what they’re asking for.”
Cham Trotter says that when he first began collecting Old Miss yearbooks, Fred was the first person he thought of going to for help. “I’m a Civil War buff, so I had been in Fred’s store before. Ole Miss started publishing yearbooks in 1897; what I had in mind to do was to have a yearbook from each decade. I had several yearbooks from when I was in school from the Sixties and Seventies, from my parents who went to school there in the Forties, from my grandfather, who was business manager at Ole Miss in the Thirties and a few from when he had been a student there around 1909.”
“But I walked in Choctaw Books one day and Fred had boxes and boxes of Ole Miss annuals from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, even up into the Seventies and Eighties. The family of Dean Frank Moak had given these yearbooks to Fred on consignment. So I decided to try and get one from every year. I got even more from Fred over the years, and now I have a full set.”
John Evans, who has every reason to know, says that the preponderance of the internet spells the end of the used book business as we know it. “The used book seller could come back, but I think we’re going to go through a void before that happens. When Fred’s business goes away, you’re not going to have someone to rush in and start another store like Choctaw Books the next day.”