At the tail end of 2020—and into the New Year—I visited the small town of Lucedale, Mississippi, to meet my girlfriend’s family. I flew in last Wednesday and we drove back Saturday.
I’ve driven through Mississippi before, and was in Jackson a couple of years ago for a friend’s wedding. This time I was much further south, as Lucedale—located in George County—is very close to the Gulf Coast, and about fifty minutes from Mobile, Alabama. It reminded me a great deal of my dear South Carolina—pine trees and deciduous forests; ample farmland; small, rural communities flung across open land between larger municipalities. In many ways, it felt like my home, just with small regional variations.
For example, my girlfriend’s family eats black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, like any good Southerner does (for them, the black-eyed peas represent good luck; for us, they represent pennies and wealth), but instead of collard greens (also for wealth—they’re the dollars), they ate coleslaw. I suspect that’s because none of her family liked collard greens, but the difference goes further: my girlfriend’s father had never heard of Hoppin’ John. For my Yankee readers, Hoppin’ John is a mixture usually consisting of black-eyed peas, tomatoes, and okra, and served over white rice. It’s good.
Other than a world without Hoppin’ John, Mississippi also had some local chains I’d never heard of before. My girlfriend’s mother kept raving about Dirt Cheap, which I think is like a Lowe’s-meets-Ollie’s that sells mostly “dirt cheap” home improvement supplies. There’s also a regional chain called Foosackly’s, which is essentially a smaller-scale Zaxby’s with clever advertising and a hilariously bizarre name. My girlfriend quickly became annoyed with my fascination with this obscure chicken joint.
One highlight of the trip was building a fire with my girlfriend’s dad. He is a man of few words, clad in suspenders, and incredibly resourceful—he maintains much of their land himself, and has built several sheds and garages. He also has added to their home, which has been in the family at least two generations, and will stay there (his mantra: “never sell land”).
On New Year’s Eve I was standing around doing nothing and he said, “Tyler, come out here with me.” Next thing I knew I was dragging hurricane-downed tree limbs to a crackling fire. He asked me to fetch him a red gasoline canister, and proceeded to douse the infant flames in diesel fuel. The primal ape at my center hooped and hollered joyously; I merely said, “Yeah, baby!” It began raining about 5 PM CST, but I would periodically venture out in the damp to tend to the flames.
There is something primeval and masculine about a fire. I’ve talked to many men who share this sense of connection with a fire; staring into it is almost meditative. It’s controlled destruction, which men love: since we were little boys, we’ve built things, then destroyed them. The best part of building with blocks is creating something new—and then demolishing it. A fire captures something of that desire to create and protect—the warmth of the fire, its ability to provide light and to feed—and to destroy. It’s satisfying throwing wood—or diesel fuel—into the fire to watch it burn. Talk about creative destruction!
The town of Lucedale was charming. The population is around 3000, and it was remarkable to see what the town could sustain (Lamar isn’t getting a McAllister’s anytime soon). It’s also enjoyable to see someone else’s hometown, trying to understand it through their eyes. I love showing new people around my original hometown, Aiken, and around Lamar, so it was fun to see where my girlfriend grew up and became the woman she is today.
The night I arrived (apologies for the chronological jumps in this stream-of-consciousness narrative), my girlfriend took me to Bellingrath Gardens in Theodore, Alabama, to see their elaborate Christmas lights display, which is purportedly the largest such display in the State of Alabama. The lights were beautiful and creative—even humorous. I particularly liked the alligators climbing out of the pond.
On New Year’s Day we went up to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the home of the University of Southern Mississippi, my girlfriend’s alma mater. Before touring the campus, we had lunch with one of her friends at a place called Mugshots, which specializes in over-the-top hamburgers. Against my better judgment and all medical advice, I ordered the Mac ‘n’ Cheese Burger, which uses two grilled sandwiches as the bun:
It was a decadent tribute to poor lifestyle choices and cardiology problems. I don’t think I was hungry again until Saturday afternoon.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Mississippi. The people I met were God-fearing and patriotic. I did notice that the obesity epidemic has hit Mississippians hard—I met a number of people with diabetes, back pain, and other issues caused in part by weight and poor diet—but they are smart and hard-working. They are hustlers, too—one of my girlfriend’s relatives talked our ears off at lunch at a local catfish house about his quest to get a good deal on lumber.
That hard-working scrappiness was, perhaps, my favorite quality. I see it in other parts of the rural South, including here in South Carolina—people doing whatever is necessary to get by. One of my girlfriend’s cousins has six children, twelve and under; I really want to know what his finances look like. But they make it work, and they have the most beautiful treasure of all: family.
Needless to say, I’m looking forward to a return visit. In the meantime, I’m glad to be home in South Carolina—what one party-goer in Mississippi dubbed “God’s Country.” I agree—and I think Mississippi qualifies, too.
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7 thoughts on “Mississippi Meanderings”
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I’ve only been to Mississippi once – Biloxi, of course; but did drive around some and found a beautiful area. The name of the body of water I was enjoying is Big Ten Lake; it’s a huge lake. The shores of the lake are dotted with older homes and some picturesque buildings just this side of dilapidated; it couldn’t have been more charming.
When I came to Florida, which to anyone is ‘down south’, I wanted collard greens. I had no idea what it was, but I wanted some. Eventually, I met a gentleman from North Carolina – a friend of Lon’s – that likes to cook. If you ever heard this gentleman speak, you would assume he came down out of the mountains yesterday so I got bold and asked if he’d make me some collard greens. He never said no directly but after hounding him about it, he suggested I buy Glory brand collard greens at the store. Then he said I had to eat them with black eyed peas – something we don’t eat up north, where I’m from. Bought the big can of collard greens and the black eyed peas. Collard greens are delicious! Glory spices it just right – not too hot but just enough to give it a little zing; I cooked the black eyed peas separately but put a heaping tablespoon of them on top of the collards on the plate. That, my friend, is a match made in heaven! Through the years, since I’ve been ‘down south’, I’ve added my own twist to collards – I buy Uncle John’s mild sausage, cut it into coins, and cook it in with the Glory collards. YUM! I finally did some research about making collard greens and am very glad store-bought was recommended; evidently, it takes a long time to prepare collard greens and they stink up the house in the process, lol.
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Thank you for sharing about your quest for collards, Audre! Yes—they are VERY stinky if you cook them yourself. Much of the veggies that Glory Foods cans come from a huge farm here in nearby Florence, South Carolina, McCall Farms. One of my former private music students’ mother works there in their marketing division. They’re also the growers behind Peanut Patch Boiled Peanuts—a staple of any Southerner’s trip to the gas station, haha. I like your “twist” on collards—the sausage would work very well with them. My parents often put pepper sauce over their greens, though that might be turnip greens, not collards.
Glad you’re enjoying the cuisine of my people. We may eat too much, but can you blame us?
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My husband and I lived in Tupelo!
I often think of the Elvis Festival and how Lamar could benefit from working together. The Tupelo model is taught in the Business School at University of MS plus they host the William Winter institute which focuses on racial justice, healing and reconciliation.
We need this in SC. The coast of MS is beautiful but the heritage of that state for people of color, of which I am, is horrendous. Let the healing begin.
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I would love to learn more about the Elvis Festival! I think there are so many wonderful events we could host here in Lamar (in addition to such great festivals like our Christmas Fair/Parade and the Egg Scramble). I’ll look up the Tupelo Model and the William Winter Institute.
Did my reply get posted? This is Mrs. Byrd McPherson and I shared about my life in Tupelo, MS?
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Yes, ma’am! WordPress was waiting for me to approve your comments, I guess because it’s your first time posting. I just saw them—thank you for reading and commenting!