Old Airmount

The following excerpt comes from Elmo Howell’s wonderful Mississippi Back Roads (Langford: 1998). This beautiful old building deserved a far better fate.

In the beginning, all Baptists were Primitive Baptists. Following the Reformation, the Anabaptists, along with Calvinists, Waldensians, Mennonites and other radical groups, departed from Church and State to live a holy life according to the Gospels. Today most Baptists in the South belong to the giant Southern Baptist Convention, but the small scattered congregations in the hill country who still have no Sunday School, no foreign missions, no paid clergy, and who still wash each other’s feet in solemn ceremony—in keeping with Christ’s example and an ancient Maundy Thursday rite—are the true descendants of the original Baptists. They are the Primitives, the Hardshells.

Baptist worship began in Mississippi in the 1780’s when Elder Richard Curtis came out from South Carolina and settled with a small flock on Cole’s Creek above Natchez. Spain ruled the country, Roman Catholicism was the state church, but for awhile all went well with Protestants in private worship. Then word got out that Curtis was performing marriage ceremonies, taking in converts, and even talking about building a church. In a government crackdown, five or more persons found together in a religious capacity were subject to arrest. He ignored the warning—but escaped, it is said, through the offices of a half-Indian convert, Aunt Chloe Holt, who roused him in the night with a horse and saddle and provisions for his journey. At the end of Spanish rule, Curtis returned to Mississippi and spent the rest of his life with the Baptists in Adams County.

In the half century following this rude beginning in Mississippi, a great revolution swept over Baptists everywhere, the “Fuller Heresy,” as the Primitives called it, or the advent of the “missionaries” with their charge to evangelize the world. Baptists began with a stern predestinarianism, which among “Southern Baptists,” organized in the 1840’s, gave way to prevalence of grace and open communion. The old remnant held on to “total depravity” and man’s incapacity to restore himself to favor with God. They rejoiced in Election, God’s choosing “whom He would,” and left it to the mystery of love that some are saved, some lost. “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you.” This heady doctrine provoked an extraordinary reaction in both life and literature in England in the 17th century. “O Eternity! Eternity!” cries John Bunyan’s Man in the Iron Cage. “How shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in Eternity!” Men lived on the edge, some went mad—while others lived gloriously and preached like Bunyan. The Primitive Baptists today are a fragmented part of this experience.

Loosascoona Primitive Baptist Church at old Airmount east of Coffeeville is a remarkable survivor, in both church organization (still with regular services) and in an old building perhaps a century and a half old. No one knows when it was built. In 1839, the Yalobusha Baptist Association in central Mississippi split in two in the controversy between old and new. Five churches broke away to form the Loosascoona Primitive Baptist Association. “I am not of you,” one elder spoke out at the meeting, “and that it may be manifest that I am not of you, I now go out of you.” And so it was in Yalobusha County, as throughout the state, that the old Baptists withdrew to their hills and hollows, a small but sturdy remnant to carry on in their own way.

The church organization at Airmount lasted for a century, but with membership down to only four families in 1938, services were discontinued. The doors were closed, the house was given a new tin roof, left to itself and forgotten. Undergrowth moved into the clearing. Then in 1965, one surviving member had a dream—he dreamt of going to church again in the woods with his father. Under the leadership of William Tyler “Dub” Wortham and Guy Shaw of Coffeeville, Loosasaoona was brought back to life. The Murphree family, old settlers of the county, joined in. (David Murphree who died in 1838—Yalobusha County’s only Revolutionary War soldier and grandfather of Dennis Murphree, Governor of Mississippi in 1927—is buried beside the church.) Thanks to the tin roof, the old structure was still sound. The road was cleared, a tree removed from the church door, and a pastor called. Today Loosascoona has a regular service on first Sunday afternoons and an annual homecoming and Old Harp singing on the fourth Sunday in September.

The Primitives, overlooked in the bustle of “new Baptist”. brothers, are an instance of survival and retention of character through centuries of change. In simplicity of life and in the old songs and sparse dignity of ritual, they approach the Mediaeval and mystical. “Godliness is a matter that cannot be understood by the carnal mind,” says church historian Benjamin Griffin of Holmes County. “It is a mystery, a great mystery-impossible to communicate except to those whose hearts have been circumcised, ears unstopt, and eyes opened by the power of the living God.” John Bunyan, a 17th century Baptist, conceived of man’s life as a pilgrimage. “I have loved to hear my Lord spoken of,” says Mr. Standfast at the end of his journey, “and wherever I have seen the print of his shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot too.”

A Culinary Classic from Water Valley

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook spotlights small town Main Street South and focuses on good, real people creating real good food and helping to make the world a better place. With this book the authors, entrepreneur Alexe van Beuren and chef Dixie Grimes, celebrate their home in north Mississippi. Like many towns in the rural South, Water Valley has languished; once busy squares and streets are lined with broken sidewalks and historic buildings are being sold for bricks. But in Water Valley, community is in focus, and though the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery has become a vibrant element in the town, Alexe and Dixie will be the first to tell you that the B.T.C. Grocery did not revive Water Valley: “Water Valley revived us.” Their book pulses with heart and glows with the warmth of their revival: a cornucopia of extraordinary food, exceptional writing and bountiful spirit.

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook often ranges far from the table, but first and foremost it is about food, beautiful food. Chef Dixie Grimes cut her teeth in local restaurants, and her talents are enriched by time. In the B.T.C. cookbook, Dixie’s foods can be divided into two broad categories: traditional Mississippi recipes, many she learned in the Oxford kitchen of her grandmother Vetra Stephens; and progressive dishes that are the product of years of experience and an exceptional feel for the ingredients and how they work together in any given recipe. Dixie says that the food of Mississippi is too easily overlooked or dismissed because of its simplicity and her respect for and propagation of the traditional ingredients and time-tested methods of Southern cooking are a dominant theme.

Any Mississippian, especially one from north Mississippi, will feel as if they’re at their own grandmother’s table with many of these dishes, or at any family reunion or church homecoming, where you’re bound to find such favorites as three bean salad, chicken spaghetti and sweet potato pie. Dixie includes a perfect cornbread recipe (yes, of course it has bacon grease), along with instructions on how to swipe your hot skillet with that grease before pouring in the batter. Such details distinguish a really good cookbook from one that’s simply rote recitation with pretty pictures. (Speaking of which, take it from someone who knows; food photography is tricky and takes a lot of care and thought. My hat is off to Ed Anderson for his beautiful work in The B.T.C Old-Fashioned Cookbook.)

With the corn bread recipe comes one for corn bread dressing, a Southern staple, along with a dictum for our fellow countrymen beyond the Mason-Dixon Line to understand that “There is no stuffing in the South.” Dixie makes her Thousand Island dressing with mayonnaise and chili sauce, tomato sauce, ketchup and other things just as everyone did before Wishbone. (Note: in central Mississippi, this same concoction is called “comeback”, and is used on anything you can put on a plate.) Yellow “crookneck” squash casserole is another summer standard, and let it be known that Dixie, like her fellow Mississippian Craig Claiborne, offers a chicken spaghetti recipe as well as one for pickled eggs. It is also altogether fitting and proper that the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery’s pimento and cheese is “red rind” cheese with pimento, which for me brings to mind the vivid image of a hoop of red rind cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas. Being in Ole Miss’ back yard, of course the B.T.C. has a Hotty Toddy Beer Chili, which is a best-seller even when the Rebs aren’t slugging through the S.E.C.

When Dixie spreads her wings, magical dishes come to the table. Water Valley is in the Catfish Belt, and the book offers three recipes. One, with a nod to our neighbors in New Orleans (there’s a grillades recipe as well), is a blackened catfish that Dixie takes to higher ground with a Tabasco beurre blanc tanged with lime. This recipe is an exquisite example of what a top-rate chef who knows her methods and ingredients can do with a modern-day classic. Dixie’s honey pecan catfish is also a splendid work of innovation, and her catfish gumbo will stand up to any in the South. Her asparagus strawberry salad is an inspired combination of seasonal favorites, her watermelon salad (Water Valley’s Watermelon Carnival draws over twenty thousand people every year) is just brilliant, and her Brussels sprouts casserole is a winner. The roasted pear and zucchini soup was featured in The New York Times, so I’m pretty sure it’s good, too.

Chef Dixie shares the B.T.C. kitchen with sous chef Lori Ward, the Breakfast Queen of Water Valley, and with Cora Turnage Ray, the in-house baker and owner of Mississippi Mud Bakery. Cora, a native “Vallian” makes everything from scratch. Cora’s recipes tend to run to the traditional as they very well should in a small Mississippi town, with “old school” three-layer cakes such as coconut, strawberry and Lane, but she too breaks with tradition; her sweet potato pie rests in a rosemary crust, and her chess pie includes buttermilk. More notably, her “fried” pies are baked, “a practice that sets many an old-timer nodding and saying that’s how his or her mother did it,” resulting in light, flavorful pastries. But that’s not all; Alexe and Dixie put another leaf in their table by sharing the recipes of friends, neighbors and significant others. They include Coulter Fussell’s red beans and rice, Miss Vetra’s chicken noodle soup, Mrs. Jo Turnage’s banana pudding and Cliff Lawson’s hominy San Juan. Alexe’s husband, Kagan Coughlin, gets into the act with a pickle recipe, but Kagan’s biggest contribution is his renovation of the old building, which took five years and uncounted hours, working nights and weekends cleaning, moving stairwells, restoring thousands of square feet of heart pine flooring, throwing up walls, installing plumbing, building counters and hauling in appliances from all over north Mississippi. (Did I mention he makes pickles?)  The writing is in Alexe’s voice; warm, often intimate, charming in its candor and gentle in its humor. The introductory essay, “Welcome to the B.T.C.”, sets the stage for an adventure. “Everybody Asks” explains what B.T.C. stands for (and more), and the three essays in the “Soup” section, “Winter”, “Summer”, and “Fall (a.k.a Football)” are delightful. My favorites are “Where Food Comes From”, “Friends and Neighbors”, “Let There Be Leeks: Brother Ken and Co.”, “Billy Ray Brown” and “Mississippi: A Long, Slow Seduction”, which offers a thought-provoking outsider’s view of my homeland.

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook stands out in the motley crew of current works on food with both recipes and writing, but what lifts the work to an even higher plane is that this book has voice, and not just one. Most cookbooks aren’t written so much as they are compiled by some editorial body with recipes and accompanying quotes from the purported author, who is usually some griddle Napoleon or oven Antoinette with a sufficiently high media profile to justify the printing costs. Unlike those efforts, this work isn’t eaten up with ego: there is no “I, me, my”; instead you find “we, us, and ours”. Any book of length written about food should mirror a time and place, and this work does all that in full. Alexe and Dixie set out to write about “the magical place where we have found ourselves” and “to give back to the people and community that has given us so much”, echoing a welcome spirit unheard in a very long time, a spirit of independence, enterprise and love.