A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
(Woo woo woo)
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson
'Joltin Joe' has left and gone away?
(Hey hey hey - hey hey hey)
— Paul Simon
I came across a piece recently in the Jackson Free Press about one of the great journalists of our time and geography, Bill Minor. The story reminded me that Bill's first assignment in Mississippi was to cover the Aug. 23, 1947, funeral of the controversial "wiry little senator," Theodore G. Bilbo. The fiery demagogue was to be laid to rest near his beloved Dream House, a mansion of 27 rooms that was built with the sweat and broken backs of the people of Mississippi, to the tune of populism and in the key of white supremacy. In the near-freezing, sleepless dark of last evening, I arose to reread the Bilbo articles from Minor's fine collection of his columns, "Eyes on Mississippi."
I often travel that same rural stretch of Pearl River County that Minor so aptly describes en route to and from my ancestral coastal homeland. Recently, on one such memorable sojourn, I stopped by to see the grave site of "The Man," as Bilbo was known in his day. My buddy Rick Cleveland, a man of eloquence and curiosity with an intense love of history, had told me where to turn off the highway to find the repugnant politico's plot. As I gaped at the mausoleum, I remembered a recipe I had concocted and named partially after the loathsome racist, Bilbo, and partially after the leader of communist Cuba, Fidel Castro. I think Bilbo would find my title duly distasteful if he were alive today, and most likely instruct his servants NOT to prepare the strange but delicious dish of sweet potatoes (Bilbos) and black beans (Castros) at a gathering of his (redneck) cronies.
As my 17-year-old daughter, Mallory, and I traversed the graceful landscape of rural southwest Mississippi along Highway 53 just east of Poplarville one day in late fall, pine forests occasionally interrupted with pecan orchards and lush pastures full of grazing cows and goats dominated the roadside. The shoulders of the two-lane road were littered with political propaganda promoting the candidacies for U. S. Congress, the Mississippi Supreme Court and various other offices up for grabs in the upcoming election. "Re-elect Pickering for Congress," "Dickinson for Supreme Court" and finally, one emblazoned with the red, white and blue "stars and bars" and the words "Giles for Congress — White Country Rebel."
We approached the Juniper Grove Baptist Church sitting prominently on a soft knoll just behind an ancient stand of pecan trees framed by its tall white columns and reflected in the waters of a crescent-shaped pond that separated the trees from the brick church building. The Juniper Grove faithful have gathered at the church—which thrived under Bilbo's stewardship during his lifetime—over the years in association with the Southern Baptist Convention. They have worshipped and exercised their brand of Anglo-Saxon faith exemplified and personified by their most notorious member, Bilbo, whose remains rest quietly behind the sanctuary in the only above-ground marble tomb adorned with a Confederate flag engraved deep in the storied and polished rock.
"Why are we stopping here?" Mallory asked as she took off her headphones, injecting the muffled music of Incubus into the otherwise melancholy cockpit of my beat-up Ford Explorer whose radio is set permanently to Mississippi Public Radio.
"I want to check out this graveyard," I replied.
"Why are we always stopping at graveyards?" she said. "It's kind of creepy, don't you think?"
"Actually, no," I responded, "I like checking out graveyards." And, "there's a cool grave here of an old racist politician who used to be the governor and a U.S. senator from Mississippi."
"Even more the reason not to stop," she shot back.
"Good point," I acknowledged, "but we're stopping anyway."
I came to appreciate graveyards early and honestly. My maternal grandmother, Vasti Stewart, was an avid believer of spending Sunday afternoons in the cemetery walking among the markers and "visiting" with those who had gone before us. I had been raised, in part, by this saintly woman who came to the rescue when my dear young mother was taken from my brother and me by melanoma. Mama Stewart would lead me around the headstones and point out this or that person, whom she felt I would, or should, remember. Regardless of my recollection, she would launch into a brief history of the deceased, their standing in the community and a quick overview of the details of their demise. Not surprising, she was a dedicated member of the Wiggins Cemetery Association. The association was charged with keeping up the grounds, removing wilted flowers and various debris in a timely manner from the graves and keeping the general welfare of the cemetery in good order. I was the youngest member of the association on record.
In the early '70s, when I became disgruntled with college life, I retreated once again to the comfort of my grandmother's benevolent care to ponder matters less structured. I took a job working in the woods as a logger. My time there ended abruptly when my father summoned me to Jackson to care for my ailing and disoriented stepmother and my youngest brother.
In the mid-'80s, after I returned to college and completed my degree, I ended up back in Jackson, where I met Willie Morris. We rejoiced in our common love for burial grounds. We made many forays into the cemeteries of his youth in Raymond and Yazoo City, where I came face to face with the legendary Witch of Yazoo for the first time. In Oxford, we climbed around the graves of John and William Faulkner, L.Q.C. Lamar and Willie's beloved dog Pete.
In his recently published collection of essays edited by Jack Bales and his beloved JoAnne Prichard Morris, Willie leaves us with words that define our shared experiences with our long gone, but not forgotten elders, and time spent at the heels of wise, patient women of our childhoods.
"When I was a boy, she (Mamie) and I took long walks around town in the gold summer dusk, out to the cemetery or miles and miles to the Old Ladies' Home, talking in torrents between the long silences. All about us were forests of crepe myrtles and old houses faintly ruined. ... We must have been an unlikely pair on those long-ago journeys, she in her flowing dress and straw hat, I barefoot in a T-shirt and blue jeans. ... Only when I grew older did I comprehend that it was the years between us that made us close; ours was a symbiosis forged by time."
So, it should be of no surprise that I would be in a cemetery just outside Poplarville, but why would I be interested in Bilbo's tomb perched along this byway of my youth? I certainly have no high regard for this man's legacy: the hate he spewed, the tradition of racism he exulted or the ignorance he preached. I detest his modern-day proteges like David Duke of Louisiana and Mississippi's own "white country rebel," Jim Giles, and the Rebel flag-waving rednecks that populate this niggardly stretch of roadway. Why then would I name my recipe "Bilbos and Castros"? For the same reason native New Yorker and Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Paul Simon reportedly told Yankees great Mickey Mantle when "the Mic" asked Simon why he used Joe DiMaggio's name and not his in his multi-platinum song "Mrs. Robinson": "It's semantics, Mic, semantics," Simon replied.
Hey, hey, hey.
Recipe: Bilbos y Castros
First you either cook the beans (see below) or go the store and buy some canned ones. I like the Progresso Frijoles Negros personally. But if you want to do it right, buy the dried ones and cook them yourself.
First, the Castros (Frijoles Negros, black beans) …
1 pound dried black beans, cleaned and soaked overnight
2 ounces salt pork (1 thick slice)
1 small onion, peeled and left whole
2 tablespoon butter
2 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
1 large onion, diced
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
3 sprigs fresh cilantro (optional)
Drain the soaked beans in a strainer and rinse them lightly under cold running water. Place them in a large pot with enough fresh water to cover. Add the salt pork and small onion and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, until the beans are tender, adding more water if necessary.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and saute' about 4-6 minutes, until translucent. Add 1 cup of the cooked beans to the butter-vegetable mixture and mash together, then add the mixture to the bean pot. Mix together, season with salt to taste, and serve.
… then the Bilbos (sweet potatoes)
2 medium sweet potatoes (preferably from Vardaman)
4 heaping tablespoons sour cream
2 cups cooked black beans
1 ounce or 2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste
sour cream (dollop) to finsh
2 sprigs parsley and cilantro, fine chopped, for garnish (optional)
When you have the beans ready, either bake or boil the sweet potatoes. I usually bake them when I'm home, but when out in the wild (where this dish was created) I use the boil method. Anyway, you wash the potatoes, cook and then peel the meat out. Smash it up, combine the sour cream, butter and the salt and pepper with the smashed potatoes and place atop the heated beans. Put a healthy dollop of cream on top and go at it. I like to chop a few sprigs of parsley and cilantro for a garnish.
Malcolm White is a restaurateur and food enthusiast in Jackson.
Note: This is an edited version of the story that appeared in print. The phrase "ailing and disoriented stepmother" was left out during editing. We apologize.
This, I like. Can we get Mal to do a regular column? Two of my favorite things, politics and food, and who better to shed light on the two? Stay on him to do more of these mini-travelogues. I have that area of the state in my sales territory and I might drop by next week to see the mausoleum honoring a despicable man. And I am going to attempt the Bilbos y Castros tonight.
Cheers and Happy St. Pat's!
- Jay Losset
Sorry... I got three "internal server errors" when trying to post this. For future reference, if you are posting a comment and you get that message, sit back and relax. Don't click "submit" again. The server will eventually get around to it, and you won't look like a repetitive idiot. A repetitive idiot. A repetitive idiot.
- Jay Losset
Jay, I cleaned up your repeat postings. That is a bug in our blogging software that keeps moving around. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it's not, so it's hard to fix (and confounding to Todd).
Otherwise, I totally agree about Malcolm's fine piece of work and look forward to including his voice in the magazine more often. Thanks!