Though Covid-19 wiped a whole slate of great events off our calendar this spring and summer, more free time has allowed us to work on other projects. I’m delighted to announce our first book, Hidden History of Jackson, is now available for purchase as an audiobook! Ryan and I signed an exclusive contract with ACX earlier this year to distribute the audio version of Hidden History of Jackson. As of this month, we are happy to announce that Hidden History of Jackson is available for sale on Amazon and Audible, and will be soon on iTunes.
When we began producing the audiobook version of Hidden History of Jackson, we were faced with a choice: contract with a professional reader, or read the book ourselves. We decided to try our hand at recording and built a small studio in Starkville, Mississippi. The Hidden History of Jackson audiobook you can find for sale on Audible was recorded by yours truly.
We are working now on recording and editing the audiobook versions of Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound and Hidden History of New Orleans. If you’re interested in listening to Hidden History of Jackson, please click here.
Thank you for the support, and we hope to see you face-to-face again soon!
Kate Cumming woke each morning and read the news. She scrolled the list of names, eagerly looking for loved ones. There were so many sick. So many dying. So many dead.
And then Kate went to work. Her family was well enough off that she could have stayed home. But, she didn’t. She was an essential worker. Kate Cumming was a nurse, and now her country was facing its severest test yet. She was living in truly unprecedented times.
When she got to work, she couldn’t help but be frustrated. Her country wasn’t prepared for the present catastrophe. Its medical system was in shambles. There wasn’t enough equipment to care for the sick. And they kept on flooding the hospital. At first it was a stream, and then a river, and if action wasn’t taken soon, it would become a deluge. The doctors had already been forced to make agonizing decisions—who would get the needed supplies? Who would be left to die?
Eventually, so many corpses left the hospital in which Kate worked, that they ran out of coffins. Her government, with all its wealth, power, and prestige, was forced to bury its citizens in mass graves.
Kate Cumming’s first exposure to Civil War hospitals came in the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh. She wrote: “But alas! nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest idea of the horrors witnessed here. I do not think that words are in our vocabulary expressive enough to present to the mind the realities of that sad scene. Certainly none of the glories of the war were presented here.” There weren’t enough medics, nor was there enough space or food. (A typical dinner was bread, butter, and coffee.)
Kate spent her first 24 hours like she would spend her next six weeks. Though utterly exhausted after staying up all night bathing wounds, she found time to record that first evening in her diary: “The men are lying all over the house, on their blankets, just as they were brought from the battlefield. They are in the hall, on the gallery, and crowded into very small rooms. The foul air from this mass of human beings at first made me giddy and sick, but I soon got over it. We have to walk, and when we give the men anything kneel, in the blood and water.”
While her government was woefully unprepared to deal with so many wounded and dying, private citizens began to chip in. Kate noted that a number of volunteers arrived from Natchez to relieve the labor shortage. In addition, citizens of Natchez began collecting supplies and sending them to the overcrowded hospitals in north Mississippi. In fact, Kate became friends with a handful of these Natchez volunteer-nurses. Inevitably, tragedy and national disaster brought out the best in many. Private individuals attempted to provide what their government could not.
After three years of hell—and surely the Civil War hospitals were as horrific as the battlefields themselves (for every soldier killed on the battlefield, two died in the hospitals)—the war mercifully came to an end.
Kate Cumming had taken care of the wounded and dying, without a respite, for three long years.
A reporter once asked Eudora Welty on a Sunday morning why the streets were so empty. She simply looked at him, and said, matter-of-factly, that it was Sunday.
It is eerie to drive by the churches of the most religious state in the nation on a Sunday morning, and see empty parking lots. Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, it will be a hundredfold more eerie. Empty churches? In Mississippi?
It won’t be the first time Mississippi’s citizens have had to worship from home. It will not be the first Easter a church has no congregation. Disease, epidemics, and wars have periodically forced Mississippians to worship distantly.
Americans, and specifically Mississippians, have grown spoiled over the past three generations in terms of variety of and opportunities for worship. We take for granted that we can go to church any Sunday (or Wednesday) we wish. Just half a mile from my house stand six different churches—all of which have full parking lots Sunday mornings. And yet, the ability to worship, hear a sermon, and break bread together with a church family has not always been so accessible.
One particularly powerful example for Mississippi was the Civil War. For instance, at the onset of war, Catholic Bishop William Henry Elder had twelve priests to serve the entire state. During the course of the war, he lost five of those priests. Of the remaining seven, the Bishop was forced to perform a spiritual triage. He sacrificed Sunday services to send many of his priests to the battlefield where he believed his priests would be of more value and comfort to a dying soldier. Inevitably, his decision left Sunday worshippers without the comfort of a service.
And then there were the times of panic and chaos and social disruption in which Elder would have to say a Sunday Mass with a limited or no congregation at all. On such Sundays, the Bishop would set up a makeshift altar and celebrate the Mass alone, sometimes in a church, sometimes, at home, sometimes in prison.
Finally, there were the slaves themselves who all too often lived spiritually isolated when their masters denied them the comforts of Sunday services. Bishop Elder met one such black man in a Federal concentration camp. The recently freed black man explained to Elder that he had been a devout Catholic in Kentucky and attended Mass and received the sacraments. But then he was sold down south, and his new master refused to allow him to attend Catholic church. Nor would he allow a priest on his land. The black man was relieved that Elder had visited his camp. The Bishop explained to him that he was still a Catholic and that he would be welcomed at Elder’s home anytime he felt he needed the sacraments or instruction.
Elder also believed that the third commandment was always being honored, whether there is a crowded church or a solitary pastor saying the Mass. Furthermore, that service was being celebrated on behalf of the slave denied the opportunity to attend. Or the wounded on the battlefield. Or, today, the homebound, forced to miss the service. He believed that the Church was much, much larger than the slave could imagine, full of good men on earth, those climbing toward heaven in purgatory, and the saints themselves in heaven. And they all celebrated each Mass on behalf of the universal Church, those physically present and those unable to attend.
In Elder’s worldview, because the Mass was universal in nature, no Church service was ever ill-attended. It was being celebrated by countless hosts of angels and saints.
And so, tomorrow, 155 years—eight bishops and six generations—removed from the war that devastated Elder’s adopted state, priests all over Mississippi will be celebrating Mass in Elder’s Natchez Basilica, at the twice-burned St. Peter’s in Jackson, and in churches all over the state.
The pews will be empty. But the service will be well attended.
News arrived in Jackson of a dangerous and dreaded disease spreading rapidly two hundred miles south in New Orleans. And then, word spread that the pandemic had arrived in Memphis. Jacksonians began to panic. Many still held out hope that the disease would bypass the capital city. But when Vicksburg reported one hundred cases of the deadly sickness, the writing was on the wall.
Those who could, fled Jackson. Those with means, half of the city’s 6,000 inhabitants, three quarters of them white, fled to the countryside. The Mayor of Jackson declared a quarantine three days later, and detectives and investigators began roaming the streets looking for quarantine violators. When the first death was reported one week later, the quarantine was tightened. In fact, a double quarantine was established. There was a great fear of “idle blacks” before the scare, and now that fear extended to the disease. Thus, frightened whites began to patrol the country roads to keep the black residents of Jackson from spreading the disease to the countryside. At the same time, the residents of Jackson quarantined themselves to keep rural blacks from bringing the disease into the city.
Finally, after eight weeks of isolation, the quarantine was lifted and life went back to normal. Normal, minus the new reality of all those who lost loved ones. While New Orleans reported 3,929 deaths (out of 13,083 confirmed cases) and Memphis suffered somewhere between 5,000-6,000 deaths, Jackson lost only 69 persons out of the 3,000 who stayed in the city (a 2% death rate and 15% infection rate.) Because there were more poor black persons in the city, the majority of deaths were among the black population.
And because priests and nuns were the de facto frontline healthcare workers, they, too, were infected and died in disproportionate numbers. Otherwise, the Yellow Fever struck democratically. As Sister Mary Bernard, who stayed behind to nurse the sick, would record: “There was not a household that did not mourn one or two loved ones who had fallen victim to the plague. The first Sunday they had assembled for holy Mass the scene in the Church was pathetic; every pew held more than one black-robed figure and when the ‘Kyrie eleison’ sounded, a pitiful wail of grief mingled with the words.”
Still, Jackson survived the quarantine and the isolation and the deaths.
Or, Bishop William Henry Elder, Mississippi’s bishop during the 1872 and ’78 Yellow Fever epidemics—who contracted the disease himself and read his own obituary in the paper before recovering and leading his dioceses for another quarter century—in Mississippi Bishop William Henry Elder and the Civil War.
Or, sixteen year old Clara Solomon and her plan to save the Confederacy by utilizing mosquitoes against occupying Federal troops in Hidden History of New Orleans.
Or, read about the man who helped win World War II—New Orleans’ unsung hero, Denton Crocker, and his battle with mosquitoes and malaria in 1940s New Orleans—in Hidden History of New Orleans.
Ryan and I made the drive south to New Orleans last week for an interview with Malik Mingo of Great Day Louisiana. Malik and his crew at WWL-TV are true professionals. Malik was friendly and warm, and asked great questions. Before our interview I said to Ryan, “What if he asks us why two Mississippians wrote a history book about New Orleans?” When we sat down with Malik, it was the first question he asked! The answer, of course, is simple — two words, as Ryan put it: New Orleans. You can watch our interview with Malik here.
The WWL-TV studios are literally in the French Quarter, so our trip to New Orleans also included a stroll around the neighborhood on Ash Wednesday. The streets were quiet — the party had died a few hours before. We got to walk down Royal Street, which was the rowdiest street in the Quarter before Bourbon claimed that title. Royal is where Cap Murphy and Recorder Ford cultivated their feud, a story which we covered in Hidden History of New Orleans. City employees were busy cleaning up the trash, but by the time we arrived at around 9:30 a.m., most of it had already been cleaned. A few dazed people in costumes were still hanging around on street corners.
Ryan and I got to enjoy a coffee from CC’s Coffee House and lunch at the Napoleon House, one of New Orleans’s oldest and most famous restaurants. It’s said that the restaurant was once planned to be the home for the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon never made it, but the name stuck. We had shrimp poboys and potato salad. You just can’t get French bread like that outside New Orleans.
All-in-all it was a long day of driving but well worth the trip. Thank you again Malik and WWL-TV — it was a pleasure.
Ryan and I will officially kick off the launch of HHNO at Lemuria in Jackson on Saturday, Feb. 8. It has been our tradition to launch our books there, and we are thrilled to be returning to one of the greatest bookstores in the country.
Just a few things you get to read about if you pick up a copy:
What exactly drew Pierre Lafitte back to New Orleans time and again, even though the authorities were eager to capture the pirate
How a New Orleans city official was gunned down by a gang in broad daylight — a gang led by a local judge and political rival
How the rise of a new music form, jazz, intersected with an axe murderer’s plans one terrifying night
How Denton W. Crocker, a born-and-bred Yankee, became a New Orleans hero during WWII
What life was like for gay Americans in New Orleans in the mid-20th century
The great thing about buying copies at Lemuria and the other local bookstores we’ll be visiting in the coming weeks is that you can get a signed copy for no extra cost. I’ll even draw a little sketch in your book with a sharpie if you like — no refunds if my artwork isn’t to your standards. Hope to see you at Lemuria!
Americans prefer eight seafood species to catfish, and that is a slap in the face to Mississippi’s fish. Catfish should be at the top of the list. Why? An analysis of two organizations’ findings makes a strong case.
The National Fisheries Institute releases data each year showing the ten most-consumed seafoods in the United States. From 2007 to 2017 (the last year results were released by the NFI), catfish slipped from the sixth most popular seafood to the ninth. It sits at ninth on the list now, just above clams. Sixth was bad enough, but ninth?
Ahead of catfish are:
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program tells consumers which seafoods are best for the ocean’s health (and sometimes, which are best for human health). Of all the fish listed above, only one gets an unconditional recommendation from Seafood Watch. Yes, it’s the catfish. “U.S. farmed catfish … is a best choice,” the guide says. Even wild-caught U.S. catfish from the Chesapeake Bay is recommended unconditionally.
Pangasius, or basa — the Asia-sourced catfish look-a-like that surpassed the catfish in popularity in 2011, is the opposite. Seafood Watch says simply that pangasius should be avoided. “Say no thanks,” the group advises.
Some of the other “top eight” foods on the list are good choices, too — if you can work your way through the many warnings and qualifications that Seafood Watch provides for those foods. Tilapia, for example, is recommended, but only if it was farmed in an indoor circulating tank, a pond in Ecuador, or a “raceway” (whatever that is) in Peru. Tilapia farmed in various other ways in six other nations are OK, but have environmental issues. Tilapia farmed in China should be flat-out avoided. Make sure you have your guidelines handy the next time you go shopping for tilapia — and good luck obtaining detailed information about where and how your tilapia was caught or farmed.
Shrimp, the most popular seafood in the country, is even more complicated than tilapia. U.S.-farmed whiteleg shrimp is a good choice — but more than 90% of the shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported. Even our beloved Gulf shrimp, if caught with a certain method of trawling, should be avoided. Shrimp caught in traps in Nova Scotia is a great choice — where can I find some of that?
Catfish is simply a worry-free, environmentally sound choice. And every time you buy farm-raised catfish, you support the Southern farmers who grow it. Not to even mention taste. (Let’s just say I cooked tilapia. Once.) It’s a no-brainer. Hopefully we’ll see catfish swim back up the list, regaining and surpassing its old no. 6 spot.
The first time I ever had a tamale was sometime in the early 2000s. My aunt Connie, who grew up in South Louisiana, brought over a huge batch to my grandma and granddad’s house for our large extended family to enjoy. I remember her excitement, but I did not share it. I didn’t know what a tamale was!
I did try hers back then, but I didn’t fully appreciate the food. The corn husk wrapping of the tamales was novel, but confusing. Back in those days — before I went and lived in Korea for eight years — I wasn’t an adventurous or curious eater.
Around the same time, I developed a liking for Robert Johnson, one of Mississippi’s blues legends and the “King of the Delta Blues.” Johnson recorded a catchy song called “They’re Red Hot.” It’s simple and upbeat, with the chorus, “Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale” repeated many times throughout the song. I remember thinking then, “Hmm, I wonder why Robert Johnson was singing about Mexican food 70 years ago. I didn’t know it was popular in Mississippi back then.”
I have since learned — from Ryan and his wife, Jackie, primarily — that the hot tamale is a beloved food in the Delta, and has been for many decades. Amy Evans of the Southern Foodways Alliance explored the history of the tamale’s Mississippi connection. Theories abound as to why the tamale became so popular here. U.S. soldiers encountered the food in Mexico in the early 19th century and brought it back to Mississippi; -or- migrant workers from Mexico brought the food with them when they came to pick cotton in the early 20th Century; -or- the dish derives from a traditional African dish of cooked meal called cush; -or- the original Mississippians, whom we wrote about in Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound, enjoyed the food long before Europeans or Africans ever showed up, and their tradition has carried to the present day.
Though the origins of the tamale’s Delta connection remain murky, what is certain is that Shapley’s in Ridgeland is keeping the tradition alive. And, they make their tamales with the attention and refinery of a fine-dining restaurant. I tried their tamales last weekend (the second time in my life I have eaten tamales) and immediately knew that yes — this is my kind of food.
I love the tactile aspects of eating — cracking into a lobster, slurping oysters off the shell, or eating chicken wings on the bone — and tamales have a uniquely tactile element. To get to the filling inside each tamale, you have to unwrap the corn husk that holds the food together while it cooks. The cooked “masa” inside bears the imprint of the corn husk (and probably some of the flavor as well). The tamales at Shapley’s were filled with ground beef, and had a wonderful spiciness that food in Mississippi often lacks. Shapley’s served their tamales in a pile, with the broth from their simmering pooling at the bottom of the plate. Yes, of course I dragged my little bites of tamale through the broth before eating.
Thank you to the Shapley family — Mark, Mary, and Jeffrey — for inviting Ryan and me to visit on Saturday and for letting us sample some of your fine food. Shapley’s will be featured in our book “Classic Restaurants of Jackson,” which will publish around Christmastime. You will have to wait ’til then to see pictures of the glorious steak Mark cooked for us — a steak so decadent the emperor Xerxes himself would approve.
“Pounding waves and sandy beaches make the coastlands between Lake Borgne and Mobile some of the most attractive in the world. This stretch of the Mississippi coast, The Sound, was not always so benign. Indeed, Josh Foreman and Ryan Starrett are born Mississippians and scholars who hope to bring the hidden, indeed in some cases “forgotten,” history of this part of their home state to public awareness. In this they’ve performed remarkably well.”
“Foreman and Starrett are masters of suggesting deeper stories. They hope others will enjoy hearing of these events, then study further. They are crisp writers, with an eye to the appropriate and surprising quotation. Well-researched, heartily presented, and truly worth a day’s reading to ponder, I hope you get a chance to enjoy this book.”
In Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound, we wrote about how New Orleans had preserved a thread to its past by keeping a historic streetcar running. For a short time, streetcars were the dominant mode of transportation in American cities. At the peak of ridership, New Orleans’s streetcars carried 148 million passengers a year. Streetcars fell out of fashion, though, and most cities opted to switch to motor vehicles. New Orleans kept its St. Charles Line open through the middle decades of the 20th century, even though no one seemed particularly interested in riding streetcars. Then, as the century drew to a close, people were suddenly interested in streetcars again. New Orleans began building new lines. More people wanted to ride. The St. Charles line had been the ember that made rekindling the fire possible.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast once had its own incredible streetcar network. But it was lost, as hurricanes and motor vehicles made the streetcar lines too expensive to maintain. Now residents of Gulfport, Biloxi, Long Beach and Pass Christian can only dream about riding along the shore in a state-of-the-art electric car with huge windows and a carved wooden ceiling. If only an ember had been kept alive there as well.
Lucky for Jackson residents, one man and his partners are doing their part to keep an ember from the past burning. They don’t maintain a streetcar line. Instead, they have preserved a soda fountain — the culinary equivalent of the streetcar. The man is Brad Reeves, and the soda fountain is Brent’s Drugs.
Soda fountains once served a useful function in the city, providing a cheap, social place to have a handmade milkshake or a burger after school or church. The soda fountain even helped ease Jackson’s transition from wet to dry in the early part of the 20th century. Barkeeps with drink-making skills suddenly found themselves out of work. They took their skills to soda fountains, crafting non-alcoholic drinks for customers that delighted them a little more than a Coke poured from a can could.
Brent’s has been in operation since 1946, and Mr. Reeves has been the owner for a decade. You can’t get your prescription filled there, but you can get a tall milkshake or a cherry limeade. Ryan and I visited on a Sunday recently, and I was impressed by how many people were at the fountain hanging out. It was as busy as it might have been 60 years ago.
How easy would it have been for Brent’s to fade away like so many fun cultural relics have? But Mr. Reeves stepped up, and now we can all enjoy eating crispy skin-on fries in a bona fide soda fountain. Thanks for keeping the ember burning, Brad!