Didion in Dixie

What is the South? The answer isn’t easy; hell, getting enough facts in one pile is hard enough, then you have to figure in observer, perspective, and perception. A dedicated minority of natives maintain that the South is a fluid, protean, shattered chimerical idea as well as just a place to hang your hat. This embracing grassroots duality is compounded (likely compromised) not only by Cash, Woodward, Foote, and their myriad lesser ilk, but also those from outside the South–the nation, the continent, even the hemisphere–who come here to write about it. And they are legion.

Joan Didion, a product of New Journalism, is best known for her introspective writings on culture and politics, though her most acclaimed works are deeply personal; The White Album (1979), including the title essay dealing with a nervous breakdown and The Year of Magical Thinking, (2005), written shortly after the deaths of her daughter and husband. It’s worth noting that her trip to the Gulf South was taken only two years after her critically acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a gritty, myth-busting account of California’s counter-culture during the 1960s. The notes for South and West were published almost fifty years later.

Didion begins her excursion through Darkest Dixie in New Orleans with images of procreation, death and decay:

“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead. One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car.”

Some might consider this an inauspicious beginning for a book about the Deep South, but then striking a gothic note isn’t out of order. Then her focus narrows:

“I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970. There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be; the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.”

Throughout the work, Didion interacts with prominent locals, including Walker Percy and (surprisingly) Stan Torgerson, but not Eudora Welty, stating that she dared not visit Welty in Jackson because she was certain that so near an airport, she’d catch a flight to the west coast. I find it telling that she couldn’t find Faulkner’s grave in that cemetery in Oxford; perhaps it’s just as telling that she even went looking. In Meridian, Didion describes an audience in Mississippi watching an American movie “as if it were Czechoslovakian; this is quite literally the purest form of projection, for it is Didion who is staring at a screen without comprehension, driving through Dixie in a distracted daze. We should bear ear to her dispassionate observations, if only to see ourselves in her eyes.

Bon Ton Bread Pudding

Le bon ton” references that flaky crust of society assumed to have cutting-edge style and better manners than those of us wallowing among The Great Unwashed. As such, the phrase “bon ton” has been used by a variety of businesses–particularly restaurants, of course–hoping to attract such a clientele, in particular restaurants. One such establishment, the Bon Ton Café at 211 West Capitol Street in Jackson, opened in the early 1900s. The Bon Ton was one of the city’s finest dining establishments, and had the first electric sign on Capitol Street to better attract diners from Union Station.

Another more famous Bon Ton was established in New Orleans in the Natchez Building at 401 Magazine Street. Originally opened in the early 1900s as well, the business was revived in the early 1950s by Al and Alzina Pierce, who came to the Crescent City from south Louisiana, bringing with them their recipes from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, becoming the first dining establishment in the city to stake a claim for Cajun cuisine in a city already famous for its Creole culinary tradition.

The Bon Ton’s best-known dish is its bread pudding, which is ethereal. When I worked in the Florida panhandle, we made a similar pudding with stale croissants, but the texture was dense owing to the abundance of air pockets in the bread, which simply could not absorb the custard adequately; a good French loaf is required. Here is Alzina Pierce’s original recipe, which comes via Jackson native Winnifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (Oxmoor, 1976).

Soak one loaf of French bread in a quart of whole milk and crush with hands until well mixed. Add 3 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons vanilla extract, 1 cup seedless raisins (optional), and place in a buttered “thick, oblong baking pan”. Bake until very firm, then cool. Make a whiskey sauce; cream a half cup of butter with a cup of sugar, and cook in a double boiler until thoroughly dissolved. Add a well-beaten egg, whipping rapidly to prevent curdling. Let cool and add whiskey of your choice to taste. Pour over pudding, heat under broiler and serve.

Bohemian New Orleans: A Review

The importance of “little magazines” to American publishing, to American literature, is vastly underrated. Devoted to serious literature, usually avant-garde, non-commercial, and almost always short-lived, these periodicals showcase voices that otherwise might be ignored. In Bohemian New Orleans, Jeff Weddle tells the story of one such journal and the publishing house that grew around it.

In 1932, a failed jewelry heist in Cleveland, Ohio, sent John Edgar Webb to the penitentiary for three years. While in stir, he edited the prison newspaper and, after his release, wrote a novel about his experience that caught the attention of Norman Mailer and led to a brief flirtation with Hollywood. Jon and his wife Louise traveled around for some years, then settled in New Orleans, in the Vieux Carré, which was a Dixie Bohemia, a haven for free spirits, musicians, artists, and writers. In New Orleans, the Webbs lived and breathed art. Lou made a living selling watercolors in the infamous Pirate’s Alley, across the street from their apartment, and Jon worked as a freelance writer and editor.

But he was passionate about creating the kind of literary magazine that would attract poets, writers, and artists to invest in the publication. After a good deal of preliminary groundwork and networking and a year of production (it was typeset, collated, and bound in the Webbs’ tiny Royal Street apartment), the first issue of The Outsider­—three thousand copies—came out in 1960. The four issues of The Outsider appeared between 1961-1968. Each publication was hand-set, hand-cut, hand-sewn, and hand decorated. Distributed globally with the help of the B. Deboer distribution company and a network of contacts around the world, The Outsider gave a resounding voice to Beats, Black Mountain poets, Pacifists, and the Black Radicals. Its long list of contributors included writers such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Langston Hughes, and Kenneth Patchen.

The remaining Loujon catalog consists of Charles Bukowski’s It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963), Crucifix in a Deathhand (1964) and Henry Miller’s Order and Chaos chez Hans Reichel (1967) and Insomnia, or the Devil at Large (1970). Crucifix in a Deathhand was the last Loujon publication done in New Orleans. The Miller books and a final, double-issue Outsider (1968-69) were published in Tucson, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque, respectively. When Jon Webb died in Nashville in 1971, Lou was incapable of maintaining the intensive production work required for what one reviewer called, “The Rolls-Royce of little magazines.”

 “The Webbs did their work with style, and people in the know understood that, while there were other good publishers, there really was no better small press operation in the country than Loujon,” Weddle says. Charles Bukowski said the magazine was “the cave of the gods and the cave of the devils … it was the place, it was in … it was literature jumping and screaming.” Jeff Weddle provides us with a closer look at an extraordinary couple who made a powerful contribution to mid-century American literature. Bohemian New Orleans is a wonderful read, full of triumphs and intriguing possibilities. Those who enjoy this work (as I did) should also get Wayne Ewing’s film The Outsiders of New Orleans: Loujon Press.

Hurricane Punch

The essential ingredient is passion fruit juice. Keep a pour spout bottle of grenadine near the ice bucket, and don’t even worry about garnishes unless you want to pick orange rinds out of the couch cushions for a month.

1 fifth light rum
1 fifth dark rum
2 cups lime juice
2 cups orange juice
1 quart passion fruit juice
1 cup simple syrup
Mix and chill. Serve over ice.