Monday, September 10, 2007

Room and board in Mississippi

Beautiful public art in Jackson, Mississippi

I’ve now been to Mississippi three times. The first time was December of 2006, when Brad and I went down to Oxford to ride around on his father’s four-wheelers on the tree farm, to eat fried peach pies, to visit his grandmother and to explore Oxford. The second time was later the same day, when, after returning to Memphis, we drove back to Olive Branch for a fried dinner extravaganza.

Last Sunday, I arrived back in San Francisco from a couple of days in Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst is about an hour south of Jackson in southwest Mississippi. I joined Brad and his family for a wedding in Wesson, but we stayed at the Western Inn Express in Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst was selected because it’s the closest “wet” community, meaning you can purchase booze, something not so readily embraced in much of Mississippi. Not that there were really any places in Hazlehurst to go drinking. But I can see why, if you lived there, you would want to go drinking often.

The Western Inn Express is a two-story motel on a highway, down the street from a Piggly Wiggly, next to a Taco Bell/Kentucky Fried Chicken, and less than a quarter-mile from a soon-to be replaced Wal-Mart. The rooms are painted blue, a darker shade than any wall I’ve experienced in a lodging establishment. The three flickering 40-watt fluorescent bulbs barely illuminated the shadows of the room, which was perhaps a good thing. At one point I thought I dropped an earplug behind the side table and discovered a Wal-Mart receipt, a penny, a used tissue, and a ball of dust and hair. I decided to leave it as a tip for the cleaning staff. The tip being: If you clean behind the furniture, I’ll give you a bigger tip (Okay, okay – I left them a couple of bucks, but they didn’t even take it the first day. Perhaps they were warned not to take any money in the room or they’ll be fired).

Little treats behind the bedside table. Enjoy the blue walls.

Actually, the motel wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced. What was worse was the restaurant across the highway from the motel. Known as Stark’s, it’s the favorite local hangout. Running across the busy highway and walking up the broken gravel driveway to the front door sets the stage for what’s inside. A former Dairy Queen, a sign posted just inside the door advertised the day’s special: “Fried Bologna on Jalapeno Cheese Sourdough Bread Sandwich.” (It remained the day’s special for the duration of our stay in Hazlehurst). Delicious as it looked, I opted for nothing, but returned later in the day for a caramel shake, which tasted like someone dumped Winn Dixie caramel-flavored topping into a blender with some milk and ice. Sweet and flavor-free.

Stark’s was filled with the diversity that is Mississippi. Fat white people, skinny old white people, fat Black people, skinny old Black people. They were all packed into the greaseball of diner playing cards, talking about guns and church and politics and the Hazlehurst High School football game that would be played later that night. The soles of my shoes easily slid across the grimy tiled floor, nicely coated with the oiled offgassing from thirty or forty fried bologna sandwiches sold over the course of the month. Some of Brad’s relatives who had eaten at Stark’s said the burgers there were the best around. And I wouldn’t doubt they were.

Stark's special treat

After the previous night’s dinner at the Family Catfish Restaurant — about a mile down the highway — I couldn’t get an appetite to eat anything at Stark’s. I was still wearing the same shorts I wore the night before (I forgot to bring more than one pair). My butt still felt sticky from the evening’s dinner, where it adhered to the bench that was my seat while I ate fried catfish, french fries, sweet potato fries, hushpuppies, fried okra, fried onions, and deep fried hamburger dills. We pushed it down with some extra creamy cole slaw and some sweet turnip greens.

Hazlehurst, Mississippi has much to offer. Lypsinka was born here.

So instead of Stark’s, we drove to the next town. Brookhaven was more upscale than Hazlehurst, so I was able to get a more upscale breakfast at Cracker Barrel. (We could have stayed in Brookhaven instead of the Western Inn Express in Hazlehurst, but Brookhaven is a “dry” town.) I was craving fruit for breakfast, but all they offered were candied cooked apples: a bowl of apple pie filling. Delicious.

The visit to Mississippi was not really about the lodging or the food. It was a family visit, and for a family visit we all make sacrifices on our weight and sleeping comfort. I easily gained four or five pounds on the trip. Of course, the lack of fiber in my diet there didn’t help too much.

The wedding ceremony celebrated the second marriage of both bride and groom. Gathered on the expansive front porch of their new farm home that resembled a hunting lodge, we watched the three-minute ceremony. It was performed by a retired pastor who proclaimed the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. The bride and groom said their vows, the pastor mentioned something about Corinthians and everyone around me bowed their heads. And then we ate boiled shrimp, jambalaya, pasta salad and a darn good white wedding cake. Easily the tastiest of the three wedding cakes I ate this summer. From The Cakery in Brookhaven, I was told.

Getting ready for the wedding on the front porch

Brad’s relatives were warm and friendly, adjusting with curiosity and easiness to their son’s wedding guest. Lots of hugs all around and invitations to visit Nashville and Overland Park and Oxford. Lots of cigarettes too. And with Brad’s parents planning a move from Tennessee to Mississippi, it looks like I’ll have many more opportunities to visit this fine state.

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