The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

July 28, 2011

Strange Meat

Billy Holliday sang a very serious song about the South called “Strange Fruit.”  Let me offer you silly prose about strange meat.  Put away your copy of Julia Child — she didn’t write a recipe for this stuff.  In Mississippi, these venerable customs persist among sportsmen, and the resultant cuisine is astonishing.

GATOR HUNTING

The principal at my step-daughter’s school told me that gator hunting season has commenced.  To Yankees, the idea doesn’t cross our minds of looking at an alligator and not thinking so much that it toothsomely wants to eat us, but instead to say, “That thang shore would taste nice in a jambalaya tonight!”

I bet these boys clean up good, but if they invite you to dinner, make sure they're not cooking at home -- you don't know what-all you might get served.

For two weeks in Mississippi, particularly, I am told, at the Ross Barnett Reservoir, it’s open season on alligators. Men go out with rifles in boats and shoot the superabundant alligators that lurk in the marshy waters.  To my knowledge, no one in Mississippi has ever bagged a gator with a ticking stomach, like Captain Hook‘s nemesis gator had in Peter Pan.  It is rather the ticking in the hunters’ stomach, or perhaps the growling, that motivates this hunt, at least in part.  They drag the body of these big gators one at a time into small row boats and paddle back to shore to skin and cook.

I imagine the shoes, the bags, but steaks?  Gumbo?

They say it tastes just like chicken.  No thank you.  I’ll stick to chicken.

FROG GIGGING

No, this does not mean a French band is playing somewhere.  Frog gigging is a local custom along the Mississippi River.  It hardly seems fair.

Let me say first that Mississippi has no shortage of frogs and toads.  These are not rare Costa Rican tree frogs we’re talking about, with delicate sensitivity to the environment.  One day, I was picking up a shirt my husband had discarded outside so that I could wash it, and a giant bull frog leapt out of it into my face.  I screamed, and it hopped into the large irrigation ditch that runs through our property.  My dog often catches them and eats them.  Frogs are everywhere, under cars, leaping out of laundry, right by your big toe wherever you walk.

However, I have mixed feelings about something that local men here do (I know of no women) called frog gigging.  They go out at about 4 am on the river (again, in the same gator-hunting row boat) shine a bright light in the face of these many frogs, who remain motionless because they are stunned by the bright light, and the frog giggers stab them with pitch forks.  They eat the frogs’ legs, usually barbecuing them.

It may not mean that a French band is playing somewhere, but I nonetheless blame the French for frog gigging.  This is a Cajun custom — I live on the edge of Cajun country here.  I have never been so fond of cuisses de grenouille that I would consider them a delicacy.

Again, give me cuisses de poule a la Lyonnaise.  If it tastes anything at all like chicken, just give me chicken.

FISH GRABBING

Catfish is a staple food along the Mississippi.  Catfish is not really exotic at all.  However, when the catfish is not, say, ten inches long but a good yard or more — that’s exotic.

I am told, again by my step-daughter’s high school principal, that such a beast — a 50-pound catfish, can’t be caught with a line.  The waters where catfish can be found, unlike deep sea fishing, are too shallow for the physics to work in the fisherman’s favor.  There’s only one way to get one of those hefty muthahs — you need to get into the muck yourself with the bottom feeders and yank them squirming into that gator-hunting-frog-gigging-stank rowboat.  You need to stick your fingers into the dark silt of the river, in the shallows, and draw them through the dirt until you feel something animate.  It might be a catfish — it might be something far less edible, and you have to grab onto it and wrestle with it until it becomes yours.

This, by the way, is how my whole life feels in Mississippi — like my fingers are down in the muck, and I’m trying to wrestle  with something that might be wonderful, might be horrible, but I still can’t see it. It’s trying to get away from me, whatever it is, but I’m hanging on as well as I can in the slick filth.  I’m covered with mud.  I’ll never get this shirt the way it was in New York.  I’m fighting in the dark, but I might just be winning.

That catfish you wrestled with, neighbor, I would gladly eat a slice of that, once it’s cleaned.  I recommend hosing the rowboat down daily, though, maybe with with bleach as well as water.  It has held some strange quarry in its belly.

If I eat the catch of the day here, I suppose it’s bound to be strange, just like my life down South is strange.  There is a clock ticking in my stomach.  There is surely a clock ticking somewhere — I thought I heard it just now.

February 21, 2010

Mud

Gorgeous now -- but wait until it melts!

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the Earth” — Matthew 5:5 (KJV)

This is what Jesus says.  He fails to mention anything specifically about mud.

As a city dweller, allow me to add this proverb from my own heart — he who inherits the earth inherits the  mud.

One of my favorite high-calorie drinks used to be called a Mississippi mudslide.  I know now why they call it a Mississippi mudslide, as opposed to, say, a Connecticut mud slide.

Mississippi has a lot of mud.  New York City, thanks to a whole lot of concrete, has only limited amounts of mud.  The only time I ever had to consider wiping my shoes off from a walk through the city was when I was in Central Park.  I remember one subway ride in Queens in the early 1990s — I saw a girl with tattoos on her arms, a nose ring, and a pair of doc martin knee-high boots absolutely covered with mud, and I knew instantly where she had just been.

I leaned across the car and asked her, “How was Woodstock?”

She leaned back smiling, glad I understood, and said, “Green Day was awesome!”

No other imaginable occasion would have created such a mess on her shoes.

Today, my Ugg boots are covered with mud.  the bottoms of my jeans are muddy.  There are little muddy paw prints on the loveseat in my living room.

I scrub, but mud returns.  There seems to be no end to mud.

I have tried to embrace the ethos of mud – – it is, after all, where life happens.  No mud — no agriculture — no agriculture — no salad — no salad — no chi-chi brunches.  Heaven forefend.

I saw a picture in the New York Times of Michele Obama on her knees in mud digging to make an organic garden.  She was wearing a cute navy cardigan, as I recall.  I told myself that this was going to be part of our lifestyle here in Mississippi, the growing of at least a few herbs and tomatoes.  Nothing could be more wholesome than that, I thought.  Fortunately, my husband is not as squeamish about mud than I am.  I have discovered, to my city girl horror, that mud ruins a manicure.   I need gloves.  I need knee pads.  I admit it.  When it comes to mud, I’m a wimp.

I thought to myself, post mud-phobia discovery, that I was going to create an outdoor room.  When I met my husband, he was living in our house with a male roommate, and the two of them had some beat-up old plastic chairs and a charcoal grill.  Otherwise, it was mostly mosquitoes and last night’s beer cans.  I would be like those intrepid folks on HGTV and create a true outdoor space.  I bought a gazebo with matching chairs and a table.  The gazebo is basically a canvas tent with mosquito netting.  I bought a propane grill.  Now we were getting someplace, I thought.  I even negotiated free delivery of my purchases.

The next day the store came with a forklift.  When they drove the forklift all over my new back yard, bringing gazebos and grills, they got stuck in the mud and tore up the turf.  I was left with some unassembled items and a bunch of tire tracks on the ground.

Martha Stewart says to get a metal rake, some grass seed, and plant to patch up such disasters.  I trust Martha Stewart, insider trading and obsessive-compulsive disorder notwithstanding.  I like the  image of myself looking like her in garden gloves, garden clogs, coordinated pastels and khakis, holding a  metal rake with a hopeful smile. I thought I would give it a try.

Then, it snowed the largest snowstorm the South has seen in years.  The photo above is from my back yard — the quaint little barn covered with white icing — that’s mine.  Even the tire tracks left by the forklift look lovely under the frothy white.

Then, in a day or so, the snow melted, leaving more mud.

Now I am thinking that gravel is my best hope, gravel and flagstones.  Maybe a little fire pit.

My step-daughter and her fiance inform me that the region has a leisure that embraces the savagery of  what I consider a problem to be tamed.  It’s called “mudding.”  Those SUV commercials we in the urban North have seen, where SUVs are off-road and brave their way through gallons of muck, well, that’s considered a fun thing to do.  The point, I am told, is to get as muddy as possible without getting stuck.

Mudding increases one’s carbon footprint, I am sure.  However, now saving the Earth, the mud, doesn’t seem like a purely good idea.  Green or not, it may be that the mud had mudding coming, with all it does to provoke us to wrath.

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