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.
Tip The Portly Politico
Support quality commentary on politics, education, culture, and the arts with your one-time donation. ***NOTE: This box is NOT a subscription to my SubscribeStar Page; it is for a one-time donation/tip via PayPal. To subscribe to my SubscribeStar page, use this URL: https://subscribestar.com/the-portly-politico ***