Black Jack

Saturday night I went for a cat fish fry at Black Jack presbyterian church – its a small country church near Sardis Lake, where my boss used to be the minister. As a vegetarian, and a non-Christian it seemed like an odd thing to do (go for fish at a church), but he assured me it would be the best time I could have on a Saturday night in June in Mississippi.

Turns out, this is completely true. First of all, the food was SO good. I skipped the catfish, but had the vegetarian options of hush puppies, squash, coleslaw and french fries. When it came to dessert, despite being full, I was handed a plate with a sampling of each, lest I insult someone by not trying and loving their homemade dessert contribution.

Second of all, folks were very friendly. They had word early on that two new people might arrive for the catfish, so it was a very quick and easy introduction. Barry, heavy in accent and fast in speech, proceeded to have a long conversation with a Black Jack local… who was in the midst of a long conversation with the Zimbabwean on a different topic, but they both seemed to be enjoying themselves so I didn’t try to merge their conversation back to one.

 

 

 

 

Year of Yes 

I’m back at my year of yes – essentially the year of yes prompts you to be open to trying anything (Legal, safe etc). I first tried this in 2013 thanks to a friend of mine, and what an incredible year it was. 

So what has my new commitment to yes led me to? Focused only on summer break…

Fitness kickboxing…


Mushroom hunting…


Tonight I’m going to a Baptist Catfish Fry near the lake, and Tuesday I start fencing. 

Turning Back

As I mentioned earlier, best laid plans are often interrupted by minimal driving experience, storms, and a lack of commitment to the Natchez plan.

I rolled North out of Vicksburg, coffee in hand and headed for Rolling Fork, MS – home of Muddy Waters, the carved bear, and small town comforts. Rolling Fork came onto my list of places to visit after seeing  a photograph of Mont Helena,  on the Delta Top 40 list (a project of the Grammy Museum).

According to the website, Mont Helana’s tragic love story goes as follows:

 

    • “In 1855 a carriage accident caused a chance meeting between Helen Johnstone of Annandale Plantation (near present day Madison, MS) and Henry Vick of Nitta Yuma, MS. There was an immediate attraction between Helen and Henry. A courtship began and in 1857 they became engaged. Helen’s mother insisted they wait until Helen’s 20th birthday to marry. The wedding date was set for May 21, 1859 (Helen’s birth date.) In 1859 at a bachelor party for Henry an argument ensued between Henry and his best friend, James Stith. Henry had sided with a servant causing James to vow to never speak to Henry again. While Henry was in New Orleans one week before the wedding finalizing plans, Henry and James had a chance encounter. James, still angry with Henry, challenged him to a duel. The next morning the two met on the dueling grounds. During his courtship with Helen, Henry had made a promise to never kill an opponent in a duel. Keeping his promise to Helen Henry shot into the air. But, James shot and killed Henry. Henry’s body was returned to Annandale a little after midnight on May 21, 1859. He was buried in the Johnstone family cemetery that same night. Grief-stricken and wearing her wedding gown and a black veil, Helen leaned over Henry’s grave and pledged her eternal love to him. Having suffered such a great tragedy on her wedding day, Helen became known as the “Bride of Annandale.”

The mansion is truly stunning from afar – as I’ve learned from my wandering throughout Mississippi, things that go unmentioned are typically the best, and that which is mentioned tends to be a bit overrated. Mont Helena, rarely mentioned, totally worth a visit. Nita Yuma, home of the Henry Vick, is not mentioned at ALL. Is it worth it? Most certainly.

Leaving Rolling Fork, headed north to Leland, you’ll cross a small bridge and on the left side are a series of what appears to be abandoned buildings. This is Nitta Yuma, and you must stop there.

Road Trips –

After arriving in Yazoo City to find most restaurants closed, I decided to snap a picture of its colorful main street and continue on to Natchez.

At this point I was already feeling stressed, and to be honest, over the idea of the whole trip. Almost immediately outside of Yazoo City, I hit another patch of bad weather and called my mother in tears. Always the voice of reason, she promptly told me to drive onto Vicksburg and then get a hotel for the night.

An hour later, she had a reservation for me at a Ramada Inn. An hour after that I bought a $3.50 bottle of wine, and a $5 pizza and grabbed a seat at the pool at the hotel next to my hotel.

The forecast called for more storms outside of Natchez, and so the next day, rather than continue on with my plan, I abandoned ship and started making my way northward. Committed to going to find the carved bears at Rolling Fork, and hopeful for a tour of Mont Helena… I rolled into Rolling Fork at about 9am. Things were on track to be in Leland, MS for a quick hello to Kermit by 11:30, and then a tour of the BB King Museum at 1.

Best laid plans.

Road trip day 1 

With a week off of work, I set out on a road trip that was meticulously planned. 

“Pick up rental car at 9:30

Drive to Natchez by way of Greenwood, Yazoo City. 

Arrive Natchez 4pm.” And so on and so forth… sure that I would see the sights of Natchez (not considered “The Delta”) and then meander northward. 

That plan went out the window at approximately 11:47 when I found myself following someone across town to Baptist town in greenwood, ms. I explained to Mr. Hoover that while I desperately wanted to go on his tour, I would swing back through town because I had to get to the world catfish museum before it closed. His tour, approximately three hours long, is a must and I didn’t want to be distracted or worried about my timing. 

That’s pretty much around the time it all went to hell. Being from the North, I am not accustomed to thunderstorms. Being myself, I’m not accustomed to driving, let alone in thunderstorms. 20 miles outside of greenwood, and a million miles from nowhere I watched a storm descend on me and I quickly started talking myself into a frenzy. “How is there this much rain?!” “Why am I on a €\£{£{*} roadtrip alone when I don’t even like to drive?!” “The %****** did all this rain come from.” “Holy shit, there’s a flashflood warning.” “Ffffffff no service.” “Of course, this is how I die. Struck by lightening or swept of the road at the beginning of a spontaneous road trip through the delta.” “Brilliant. Let me pull in this driveway and get bloody shot while I’m at it.”

You get the idea. 

45 minutes later, I rolled into the town of Belzoni… pronounced with a subtle “ahh” rather than “ee” as no one informed me while I made a fool out of myself. Arrived at the catfish museum, and was informed that “it normally takes around 15 minutes, but the video broke so it should only take you 5″… here’s a consolation coffee mug with a cat fish on it. You have risked your young twenty something year old life to see the world’s catfish museum with the video, but here you go: a coffee mug and the knowledge that catfish farmers were able to redirect them to feed at the top. #themoreyouknow 

Oh, and an invitation to next year’s annual catfish festival – which I will be attending. Perhaps by then the video will work, and above all, how can you turn down an invite like that? Belzoni’s catfish museum has the NICEST museum curator/representative/handler. 

I then checked the weather, which appeared clear and set off for Yazoo City for lunch (having been assured that there would be places both open and with delicious food)… again, best laid plans and what not… I arrived in Yazoo City at 2:04, 4 minutes after most places and closed. Fortunately (kindness of strangers) and unfortunately (being a life long vegetarian), I was offered half of a fried ham sammich by an elderly woman on the street who claimed I “sure did look a bit hungry for lunch.” 

More later. 

The Mississippi

I have, in a variety of precarious situations – usually involving poor judgement and a cat-killing level of curiosity, considered what would be the headline of the article announcing my death.

This weekend setting out for a canoe trip with the Mississippi Water Security Institute was not one of those times – I casually checked the weather and thought to myself that the parts of the Mississippi I had seen could hardly be considered impressive.  For back story, about a month ago, I took my students out on the Wolf River in Tennessee, and given the weather called for severe thunderstorms I disappointed all of my students by declaring that it would be a day trip rather than an overnight. The weather turned out perfectly, and I looked like an overly cautious mother duck.

After setting out on a side channel outside of Clarksdale we encountered bad weather only briefly – Bad weather in the south means something very different than what I’m used to. I have NEVER seen a canoe fill with water so quickly as we began to bail water out of the canoes. Half of the students seemed mesmerized by the thunder and lightening, and the other half seemed panicked enough to help out. Everyone had rain gear, but it absolutely seemed ridiculous at that point to done a poncho and hope to stay dry. ‘Realizing that I was the only one laughing, it occurred to me that April’s camping trip cancellation was probably the right idea. Imagine camping in a swamp with twenty sopping wet freshman. Not my idea of fun.

After a few minutes the weather calmed down and we made our way out to see the main channel of the river. That was the first time it occurred to me that this river, the longest in North America, really is quite impressive.

So if you find yourself with the time, money and resources to venture out on the Mighty Mississippi, it’s certainly worth the visit – even in a thunderstorm.

 

The Baghdad Eucharist

The Baghdad Eucharist by Sinan Antoon is your new homework – yes, yes, your new reading assignment. If you prefer reading in Arabic, pick up a copy of Ya Maryam. If English, and Arabic are not your thing, then contact Hoopoe Fiction to beg for a translation in French (you can find a Spanish copy).

What’s it about?

Put most simply, “The Baghdad Eucharist is an intimate story of love, memory, and anguish in one Christian family.” <<Thanks Amazon>>.

Taking place over the course of a day, we see Baghdad from the perspectives of the elderly (Youssef) and the young (Maha). What makes this worth reading are the powerful descriptions of the people who make up Youssef’s world – his sister, Hibba, his other siblings and his drinking companions.

Moreover, it dismantles the single story of Baghdad as a place where Sunni-Shiite divides allegedly reign supreme, and for this reason alone it should be required for every American who dares utter the phrase “Who cares? they’ve been fighting for hundreds of years.”

The Baghdad Eucharist screams nostalgia in the best ways, after all Maha accuses Youssef of living in the past, – the ways I often feel myself reaching for when I try to talk to my students about date palms (coincidently, there are plenty of mentions in Antoon’s novel), the power of community, and of place.  Instead of hearing my thoughts on the richness of culture or the incredible importance of the date, they usually hear “blah blah sectarian violence. blah blah arabic word,” and then go off to whatever place in the world they inhabit. Antoon, as to be expected, once again captures everything I can’t.

So in the Spring, I’ll be assigning The Baghdad Eucharist. In the meantime, I’ll be reading my well worn copy of I’jaam, one of Antoon’s other novels, and a much more compelling read than 1984.

Omnivore’s Dilemma

In March, my students and I were exploring food choices, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen. As part of this, they were required to keep a food journal for 3 weeks – documenting each meal through my Fitness Pal, and submitting it at the end with their own commentary or observations on choice, health etc.

I forgot how *southern* my freshman are until we did this experiment. Take a guide to southern cooking cookbook, open to any page, and I guarantee that particular dish was recorded by at least 1 of the 45 freshman.

Crawfish… check.
Fried chicken… check.
Green beans… check.
Greens… check.
Okra… check.
Corn…. check.
Cornbread… check.
Hushpuppies…check.
Shrimp Etouffe… check.
Jambalaya… check.
Pulled pork… check.
Fried pies… check.
Mud pie… check.
Chocolate chocolate cake…check.

This was also a great way for me to realize just how much southern cuisine has infiltrated my own diet and food preferences… that and I have now acquired a number of skillets (cast iron as well as not).

On my own part, I’ve started adapting most of these foods to accommodate my vegetarian lifestyle. Green beans, vegetarian jambalaya, cornbread… I finally got around to figuring out what a hushpuppy was, and now that I know, delicious.