My Uncle L.

Larry Wayne Thomas breezed into my life on a random wind, and we sailed together happily for many years.

We first met in April, 1976. I was a freshman at Ole Miss, where L.W. was teaching English. My roommate, a dissolute mental lightweight who went on to serve two spectacularly disgraceful terms in the Mississippi legislature, was his student. He paid me to write his term paper for L.W.’s class. Not only did I write it, but I was prevailed upon to deliver it to his teacher’s office at the last minute. L.W., a handsome young man in a tiny office in Bondurant, received the paper and my lame excuse about the roommate being called home due to a family emergency with undisguised ill-humor. The paper got an “A”, the roommate passed the class with a “C” and I walked away with thirty bucks. When I finally got around to telling L.W. this over twenty years later, he said, “I knew that idiot couldn’t have written a paper that good, but I couldn’t prove he didn’t.”

We came to know each other well during the intervening years, seeing one another around town, mostly at watering holes such as the Rose, the Gin or Ireland’s, among many mutual friends such as George Kehoe, Jere and Joe Allen and his future bride, Jean Tatum. L.W. began working at the Warehouse about that time while I bounced from one ill-fated restaurant to another. After the failure of Audie Michael’s, I found myself unemployed. Shortly after that, L.W. came to my apartment and offered me a job at the Warehouse. I don’t know whose idea it was, his, Frank Odom’s or Don Carlisle’s, but of course I took the job and for years he and I worked shoulder to shoulder in Oxford’s best-known and most respected dining establishment.

L.W. was my boss, the primary liaison between the kitchen and the floor, a job that’s bound to make anyone a nervous wreck, and L.W. was no exception; busy nights reduced him to fussing and fretting to no end. My job, as I saw it, was to keep the kitchen working smoothly, which involved a minimum amount of interference from management. L.W. and I had our disagreements (most notably over his insisting on adding bell peppers to a shrimp boil), but after the last tables were served, everything was rosy. Outside the kitchen doors, with his droll wit and unfailing good humor, L.W. was the most congenial, amiable restaurant host possible. He knew everybody and everybody knew him, and (for the most part) their knowledge of one another was infused with warmth and life. L.W. and I usually traveled in different circles, but we would often bend elbows together; he was smart, funny, a joy to be around, and I basked in his company. I began to call him Uncle L., a sobriquet his many friends used. He put up a fuss about that, but anybody’ll tell you it didn’t take much to ruffle his feathers.

The morning after the Warehouse burned, February 16, 1983 we met one another on the northeast corner of the Square and walked east on Jackson Avenue. We barely spoke until we got to the smoking ruins of Country Village. We stood there for a moment, and L.W. gave voice to what was running through both of our minds: “It didn’t start in our kitchen.”

We both moved away after that; me to Florida, L.W. to Colorado. I returned to Oxford after four years and re-entered Ole Miss, but I got L.W.’s address from a mutual friend and wrote to him, saying how much I missed him and half-jokingly urging him to move back. Well, he did, and though I have a feeling that he was just as miserable in Colorado as I was in Florida and my plea was just added incentive, he later told me on more than one occasion that my letter made him so homesick he just had to return.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I moved from Oxford again. To my everlasting regret, I missed his wedding to Jean, and as fate would have it, I never saw my Uncle L. again. How I wish I could write him another letter and tell him to come back to us.

The irascible Howard Bahr with the irrepressible L.W. Thomas

Willie’s Liver

Willie Morris, by most accounts one of Mississippi’s most beloved authors, particularly for his homespun WWII memoir, My Dog Skip (1995), is perhaps less fondly remembered for his autobiographical North Toward Home (1967; written when Morris was all of 29). Hailed by the Sunday (London) Times as “the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain”,  but damned with faint praise by the Sunday (New York) Times as though “lacking in focus”, “well-written.” Then there’s The Courting of Marcus Depree (1983), which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says that, “Instead of catching a story by the tail, Willie Morris staggers around, lunging after whatever happens to catch his eye.” (“Lurching” would have been more apt.)

Morris’s early successes as editor of Harper’s led to early failure. After his summary dismissal by John Cowles, Jr., the scion of the conservative family that owned the magazine over a dispute about the publisher meddling in editorial operations in 1971, Willie hit the skids. He bummed around Long Island for a while, soaking up booze with the likes of Craig Claiborne, whom he recklessly advised to write an embarrassing memoir. He then he came home to Mississippi, to Oxford, the literary nipple of Mississippi, where he quickly became the central figure of a dissolute group of rakes and hangers-on who trolled the bars in varying degrees of pixilation and retired to his home at closing time for late-night revels with Willie as the Prince des Sots.

At that time, I was working at The Warehouse, a restaurant in Oxford that saw its heyday in the early 80s, where James Ruffin was the head cook. Garrulous and scrappy, James scared the hell out of me when I came to work there as his right-hand-man. James was blind in one eye, as I am, so I figured between us we would get along like those old women from myth who shared a single eye. And we did, working together in a cramped, noisy, hot kitchen. We came to know and trust each other well. The last time I saw him was the day after the Warehouse burned in the wee hours of February 15, 1986. When he died many years later, our old boss Frank Odom let me know, and I was saddened. James was a good man who lived a hard life.

The Warehouse enjoyed a somewhat upscale reputation and business was good. Now, after-hour diners are always an irritant to restaurant staff, but they hold big appeal for management who enjoy enabling significant people to entertain themselves and their significant friends after the riff-raff have gone and a strategic table can be commanded. Willie Morris always came in at closing time with a number of his adherents to occupy the big round table in the southwest corner of the floor, far enough away from the noisy bar where Willie could hold court without distraction. The management always alerted us that they were coming, which gave me and James ample time to halt our closing procedures and grumble until the table had been seated and lubricated with ample rounds. Almost invariably, Willie ordered the calf’s liver, which came to us pre-sliced and individually quick-frozen. A serving consisted of two 4-oz. slices of liver, dusted with seasoned flour and cooked on a well-oiled griddle and served with potatoes and a small salad. At $9.95, it was our cheapest entrée.

Cooked properly, a seared slice of liver is a wonderful thing. But it takes a little consideration, and by 11 p.m., James and I were on our last legs of the day. His wife had been waiting for him in the parking lot for an hour (he couldn’t drive at night), and I had less than 30 minutes to have a beer with my friends at the Rose before it shut down. So when it came time to prepare Willie’s liver, James put a griddle iron on it and let it cook while we mopped the floor. The end result was leather. Neither the besotted nor the hungover Morris ever complained.

This grumpery against Morris can easily be dismissed as carping of the pettiest sort, but one day I was in the Gin, a landmark Oxford restaurant and watering-hole with a small group. At the bar, in his usual corner on the south end, sat Doxie Kent Williford, one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever known and one of the very few openly gay men in Oxford at the time. You rarely heard Doxie say an unkind word about anyone (including Willie Morris), and he was regarded with affection not only by the staff in the Gin, but by many Oxford residents and students.

I remember it was a late afternoon, and Willie came through the swinging doors with his entourage. They settled in at a large table in the center of the floor and not a half-hour had passed when Willie, in a very loud voice, said, “Look at that faggot at the end of the bar!” Then he snickered.

The room fell silent. Doxie put his head in his hands, asked for his check and left. Willie laughed more at that and resumed telling whatever impressive lie he had launched upon earlier. We were all in shock, and I tried to follow Doxie out to say something, but he left in a hurry. He was back the next day, but refused to talk about it. I let it go for then, but after forty years, Willie’s gross incivility and utter lack of regard for those considered unworthy of his company remains a defining moment for me of his corrupt, dissolute character.

Season liver with salt and pepper, sear in light oil, turning once until just done and set aside; working quickly, add more oil, increase heat, add clove of crushed garlic and a half an onion, sliced into slivers or rings. Layer liver atop vegetables and cover for about five minutes, or until the meat is firm. Invert to serve.

Red Snapper en Mornay

Snapper en Mornay was one of the most popular dishes at the Warehouse in Oxford because it was distinguished by a great in-house sauce. Jean Tatum Thomas once told me that she’s eat a Turkish towel with our  Mornay on it, and don’t put it past me to try her. Our beautiful filets came from Tarpon Springs, Florida

Make a thick Béchamel; add grated Swiss or Provolone cheese, chopped green onions, picked lump crab meat, and a splash of sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”). Season with Lowrey’s, mix well and chill. You’ll need about a cup of sauce for eight ounces of fish; if not snapper, use flounder, or another lean white fish. Skin filets if needed, score lightly on both sides, and place on a shallow lightly buttered oven dish. Spoon the cooled sauce over the fillets and bake at a very high heat until sauce is bubbling. Serve with a dusting of paprika, a sprinkling of sliced almonds, a lemon garnish, fresh bread, and a wine of your choosing.

Noon in Oxford

When the courthouse clock struck the first toll of the noon hour, the complexion of the village changed. Shopkeepers and clerks hurried their over-the-counter trade so as not to be late for mealtime; little old ladies in their shawls and bonnets scurried home along side streets to their salads and tea-cakes; doctors and lawyers put aside the healing of the sick and matters at the bar to congregate in the public inn for a plate of the noon-day fare; farmers found a shadier side of the square and rested under tall oak trees while they took their dinner of canned meat and yellow wedges of cheese. It was a time for idle chit-chat, political forum, witty repartee, and peaceful rumination with a temperance and protocol like no other time of day.    –L.W. Thomas
Written for the menu of The Warehouse Restaurant, 1984