Thank you Great Day Louisiana

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.

Shrimp poboy and potato salad from Napoleon House

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.

 

Hidden History of New Orleans is right around the corner

The book, our third with the History Press, will be officially released on Feb. 3. You can pick up a copy at the usual places: amazon.com, Lemuria in Jackson, Pass Christian Books on the coast, and many bookstores in New Orleans.

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!

A slap in the face to catfish

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.

A catfish statue in Belzoni, Mississippi, the “Catfish Capital of America.” Library of Congress

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:

  1. shrimp
  2. salmon
  3. canned tuna
  4. tilapia
  5. Alaska pollock
  6. pangasius
  7. cod
  8. crab

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.

An awe-inspiring plate of fried catfish from Cock of the Walk.

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.

Tilapia in its pale, mushy glory. Creative Commons

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.

Trying tamales, a Mississippi classic, at Shapley’s

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!

beef-filled tamales at Shapley’s in Ridgeland

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.

A migrant worker from Mexico helping pick cotton in the Delta in the early 20th century. Library of Congress

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.

From left: Jeffrey, Mary, and Mark Shapley

A great review for Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound

John Davis is a prolific book critic who writes for the Decatur Daily in Alabama. Mr. Davis recently turned his critical eye toward Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound. We were delighted to learn upon publication of the review that Mr. Davis was a big fan of the book. Some highlights from Mr. Davis’s review:

“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.”

We hope Mr. Davis’s review will spur some readers in Alabama to pick up a copy of Hidden History of Mississippi Sound. Thank you to Mr. Davis for reading and recommending!

Brent’s Drugs: Keeping the ember burning

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.

Infrared view of a streetcar on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. Library of Congress

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.

The Gulfport and Mississippi Coast Traction Company cars that once ran along the Mississippi Gulf Coast

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.

Brad Reeves

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!

Kamau Bostic stops by for a visit

Kamau Bostic, a young Mississippi photographer, shows students some of his commissioned work.

Kamau Bostic, an impressive young photographer who lives in Tupelo, guest taught my photography class this morning. Kamau is a professional photographer who specializes in portraits and product photos. Kamau wowed my students with his beautiful portfolio, took questions, and even set up his photography equipment and showed students how he shoots and edits portraits.

Kamau graduated with a BFA in photography from Mississippi State in 2018, and was heavily involved in the Starkville arts scene. Several of my students knew of him and were happy to welcome him back to State.

Jarrius Carter volunteered to have his photo taken. Kamau set up his remotely-triggered strobe light and a huge umbrella, and shot Jarrius with his Nikon D810. Kamau put the photo up on our classroom’s Smartboard and walked the class through his editing process. I for one learned a lot about editing and can’t wait to implement some of Kamau’s techniques.

Kamau Bostic brought along his favorite lighting setup for portraits.

Kamau is good friends with my brother Wes, which gave me an opening to have him visit my class. He is in the early stages of his career, but is already making a name for himself as a talented young Mississippi artist. He has landed some big clients, and spends many of his weekends traveling to photo shoots. Kamau also works for the Mabus Agency in Tupelo. You will be hearing about him soon — mark my words!

The portrait of Jarrius Carter that Kamau Bostic shot and edited in front of my class.

Meeting an Icon

Ryan and I were lucky to meet Mississippi icon Malcolm White over the weekend and hear some of his stories from many years owning Hal and Mal’s, living in Jackson, and generally being involved in the Mississippi arts scene.

Ryan took plenty of notes and will be relaying some of Mr. White’s stories in “Classic Restaurants of Jackson.” In addition to meeting Mr. White, we also got to try some of Hal and Mal’s downhome Southern cooking. It was another great weekend of meeting interesting people, tasting great food, and learning about some truly great restaurants.

We have visited six restaurants and still have 12 to go before we are done. I could get used to this kind of work!

Video from the 2019 Mississippi Book Festival

“All About Mississippi”

Marshall Ramsey has been tickling me with his cartoons since I was in high school, so it was a great honor to sit and talk with him, Luke Lampton, Kate Stewart, and Janice Branch Tracy in front of an audience of about 250 at the 2019 Mississippi Book Festival. Marshall was a fantastic moderator who kept the conversation flowing and the audience engaged.

I got a notice today from the MBF that our talk, “All About Mississippi,” is available to view on the MBF website. The video quality is fantastic. To be honest, no one has ever filmed me in such a way before! I watched a minute or so of it and thought that my head looked bigger than I realized, and my beard longer…

Anyway, if you want to see our full talk with Marshall, you can watch the video here.