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.

 

 

 

 

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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 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.

 

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.

 

Small Town Life

The reality of small town living in Mississippi often catches me off guard – by most of my student’s standards, Oxford is the big city. For me, Oxford is the southern living version of the town I grew up in. The equivalent number of streets, the quaint “downtown” area, and an oddly high number of both nail salons and below average Mexican restaurants.

Yesterday I went to the good will, grabbed a book that caught my eye, got home, flipped to the front page and saw that my office mate was the book’s previous owner. Curious about this, I grabbed the other book I bought, flipped to the first page, and found the name of one of my former students.

Shortly after the Good Will visit, I went into Walmart and ran into 5 different students. All of whom had come on their own, all of whom greeted me –

The night before that, I went with a co-worker to grab a glass of wine in an empty bar. The only other group to walk in was a group of our colleagues from another department. This makes me all the more aware of going for a late night grocery run in my pajamas, or venting about my daily frustrations.

Working out of reverse culture shock 

I haven’t blogged much the last 6 months – for a number of reasons including my workload, and the stress related to moving my partner and dog across the ocean. I also didn’t recognize the country I moved back to at all – confirmed by the election results in early November, and I didn’t fully prepare myself for reverse culture shock. 

I forgot how hard it was to move back – especially to a different American culture. I’m still baffled by the small things like gas station dinners (ribs, potatoes and corn… not nachos and corn dogs), the limited availability of … well anything that’s not BBQ or boutique, and the general politeness that characterizes every interaction. I still struggle with the big things – lack of affordable or adequate health care, pervasive racial tension, and an economic system which punishes the poor. 

Making friends was harder than I thought, so I decided to take the situation into my own hands. I started working out with a personal trainer… essentially I began paying people to talk to me – and I’m okay with that. My fitness goals are on track, and for the hardest 3 months I had weekly face to face interaction with humans who were not my students, the liquor store clerk, my friend who drank with me over FaceTime, or my mom who calmly fielded every stress ridden phone call. 

I also joined a 5k running club (even though I love people, I loathe running with them) long enough to earn a friend who puts up with me, and reminds me of the goodness of people. We haven’t hit our running goals, but that’s not really what it’s about most days. It’s venting about jobs, relationship stress, and sharing TV recommendations. 

I’m working out of the culture shock… literally. Returning to the U.S. has been hard – made easier by a lot of people who are looking out for me – but it’s a work in progress and we will see where it goes from here. 

Chewalla Lake trails 

An hour or so north of Oxford, the Chewalla Lake trail makes for a nice morning out. This trail doesn’t seem very well kept by the Park Service, but perhaps that’s because it’s winter and everything is closed for the season. It’s beyond me how 77•F can be considered a “chilly” day… but then what do I know?

Southern Rules

I’ve started to learn a few things the last week…every place has their own rules which govern behavior, and I’d like to not make a complete fool of myself, so here we go:

  1. Under no circumstances shall white be worn after Labor day and before Easter. I thought this was a thing that died out in… oh I don’t know… the 80s. Apparently not, so I am now tasked with locating something to match my navy slacks to, and my white boat shoes shall be retired to the top of the shelf until the spring.
  2. Sweet tea is the topic of much conversation, when in doubt, default to this topic. It’s a safe zone.
  3. No dancing on elevated surfaces. I hadn’t planned to, but now I definitely won’t. My feet shall remain on the ground when dancing.
  4. Greek life = life as we know it. Well, I guess that shall be amended to Greek life, the Grove, and all things SEC Football. If I can’t get fully on board with it, I can certainly appreciate it.
  5. People are apparently always watching your behavior. This morning, the young man hired to tend the grounds at my apartment complex, remarked at how much I walk, and apparently appear to be in a rush to go everywhere. Yesterday, someone remarked at how I am always waiting for the bus (I am), and another person commented that I receive a lot of packages (Amazon is my new best friend).