Averyell A. Kessler

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Tomatoes ©Averyell A. KesslerEarly Saturday morning, an unexpected item popped up on my laptop. Not an unusual phenomenon, but this one was different. It came from a New England travel site and featured an article titled, “The Tomato Sandwich-A New England Sumer Treat.” What the heck? Each word slapped me in the face, and I finally understood the definition of cultural appropriation. “No, no, darlin’. That’s ours.” I said aloud as I starred at six red ripe Smith County beauties from Brenda’s Produce at the old farmers’ market. (I bought lady peas also, but that’s another matter). The article went further, proclaiming that the tomato sandwich was one of six traditional New England sandwiches beloved by everyone.This is not a simple transgression, like sending a late birthday card or forgetting the name of your seventh-grade science teacher. This is a biggie. This is wearing an Alabama tee shirt to an LSU football game or the Clarion Ledger confusing Mississippi State and Ole Miss in a banner headline. This is adding a handful of kale to the biscuit dough. This is treason! I re-checked the origins of the tomato sandwich by leafing through a reliable source, The White Trash Cookbook, Ernest Matthew Mickler’s comedic cookbook printed in the late 1980’s. In addition to All-American Slum-Gullion and Jail House Chili, it contains a plethora of authentic old-time southern recipes. I found Kitchen Sink Tomato Sandwich on page 74. It includes brief instructions as well as “commence to eat over the kitchen sink while the juice runs down your elbows.” Thank you, Mr. Mickler, how well I know. As a secondary source, I looked in Mama’s 1951 Joy of Cooking and found the tea party version of tomato sandwiches. Still good.So, what to do with my tomatoes? I’ve joyfully said goodbye to pale, hot house grocery store tomatoes as hard and juiceless as tennis balls. The real thing is resting on my cutting board waiting me to pierce its shimmering skin and release an explosion of juice and seeds. After that, anything is possible – tomato jam, creole okra and tomatoes, tomato pickles, and stuffed tomatoes overflowing with shrimp salad, sauces for boundless pastas and lastly, one of my favorites, tomato soup. Simple, delicious and not requiring instructions from Julia Child.To me, tomatoes tastes like summer, a picnic at the beach, Sunday lunch feast at Aunt Allie’s overloaded table. It’s knowing where the tomatoes came from and who tilled the soil. It’s a neighbor knocking on my door with a sack full of backyard bounty. “Here’s a few more,” she says. “I put in some green ones in case you need’em.” It’s buying another jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise in case kin folks surprise you or an emergency late night snack is required.I’ve always wondered why southern food has such a mystique. It’s not complicated, doesn’t require exotic ingredients and is easily learned in grandmama’s kitchen. We don’t need faddish cooking equipment because our aged skillets are pure gold and the old beaten-up roasting pan is a family treasure. Sometimes our food requires a fishing pole, a crawfish net, or a hunting license. Maybe it’s just knowing which store offers the best yard birds, who smokes fall-off-the-bone ribs, or where to find homemade blueberry jam or bread and butter pickles. It’s also realizing that nobody wants broccoli tacos or tofu pie on their Thanksgiving table.So, New Englanders and other folks who wander by, you may sample out goodies. You’re allowed to slice juicy tomatoes and place them end to end on white bread. Be sure to slather on the mayonnaise. You can fry up a mess of Delta Pride catfish and dip the crisp ends in homemade tartar sauce. But remember, we’re saving the bream for ourselves. We’ll explain the difference between field peas, purple hull peas and crowder peas, and tell you how to season them or add snap beans to the pot. Listen carefully when a southern cook says, “I don’t measure anything, but I know when its right.” If you’re lucky, we’ll show you how to fill a black iron skillet with silver queen corn and fry it in bacon grease until it is sweet as apple pie. In return, I promise we will not have a clam bake on the beach in Biloxi or attempt to replicate a fresh lobster roll from a chewy frozen lobster tail. We will not tap a scraggly pecan tree and try to produce knock-off maple syrup. So, don’t worry, we like Mississippi mud pie a lot better that Boston cream pie. And if you want a real tomato sandwich, come on down.

Talking Honey©Averyell A. KesslerAs the child of midwestern parents, I was not taught the language of the south. Instead of Ohio, Daddy said Ahiya. Mama attended Northwestern in Chicaga and rode the “L” – whatever that was. My conversion happened by osmosis, as gentle expressions and soft southern words covered me like a fine mist. Unspoken lessons came from my backyard playmates who explained what an ice box was and insisted on drinking coke, not pop. I also learned to say Biloxi, not Bulocksee, and that it was ok to omit a syllable or two from the name of my home state. My Baptist friends explained that up yonder meant heaven and the minister was really the preacher. Also, that a revival could occur in a tent, a baptism might take place in a cattle pond, or a burial in the middle of a pasture.My only relatives lived far away in Columbus Ohio, a foreign land. They rooted for Ohio state (treason), grew unfamiliar vegetables such as swiss chard and wax beans, and ate food that even the most incompetent southern cook would have tossed out immediately. They spoke in squawks and beeps that sounded like a jackhammer on pavement. Thankfully, I only saw them once a year, but when that time arrived, I braced for the onslaught. My youngest cousin, Sue, always welcomed me with the same greeting “Eeew, you talk funny.” I tried not to say y’all, but it slipped out every so often and she laughed.“You-all havin’ fun up nawth,” Sue teased.“Y’all is plural,” I replied. “It’s a lot better that you guys.”I was suspicious when my aunt and cousin invited me out for a special lunch in downtown Columbus, a ladies’ only affair. My mother and I put on Sunday School dresses and met them at the Lazarus, a massive department store big enough to swallow Jackson’s Kennington’s in one gulp. It boasted gleaming escalators, sold everything from clarinets to canaries, and was taller than the First National Bank building. An elegant lunchroom was on the second floor.“Guess what?” Sue announced as we were seated by a long wall of windows with a panoramic view of downtown Columbus. “We’re going to be on the radio.”I smiled but said nothing.“It’s the Lunch on the Town Show with Robbie Robertson,” my aunt continued.“Who? Mama asked, rolling her eyes. Certainly, this was not Farmer Jim Neal or Woodie Assaf.“He interviews people having lunch here every Friday. I thought it would be fun. I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you and Averyell.”“Oh no,” I thought. “Here it comes. More teasing.”As I nibbled my way around the edges of a chicken sandwich, I tried to make myself small by an exercise of will. It didn’t work. When Robbie entered the room, he headed straight for our table like a streaking arrow. The next moment he lifted his microphone close to my lips and said, “I understand we have some folks from Mississippi here today.”“Yes, sir,” I answered. His eyes blinked once, twice. “What a polite young lady,” he said. The interview continued for ten eternal minutes as he asked benign questions about life in Mississippi, nodding and urging me on when I fell silent.Suddenly, Cousin Sue interrupted, “Don’t you think she talks funny?”Robbie turned and leveled Sue with searchlight eyes. “Sweetheart,” he answered. “I was born and raised in Memphis,Tennessee. She sounds like honey to me.”Sue shrank in her seat, her face flamed red. No one mentioned my accent again. I left the lunchroom with a bouquet of roses and a $100 gift certificate from Lazarus. Sue left with a sullen face, and tight, pressed together lips. It was a small but gratifying triumph.So, what exactly is a honey voice. For starters, it neither black nor white, young or old, or solely in the possession of women. It’s the gentle tone of home. I hear it when a childhood friend calls to invite me to lunch, or the grocery guy says, “You need a hand with that ma’am?” It’s a grandmother singing into a baby’s ear, or a little boy licking his thumb and asking, “when are we gonna cut that pie?” I recognize it when a gospel choir stands for Just a Closer Walk with Thee and tender harmony flows like sweet cream. A honey voice whispers softly like wind sweeping through pine trees and gives respite from the constant noise of electronic clatter. It speaks with a rhythm that can’t be duplicated and tells a tale like nobody’s business.A small caveat – a honey voice can raise a ruckus when needed. I remember an irritated Delta lady shrieking “Hush your mouth! You’re as drunk as Cooter Brown.” It’s an SEC coach taunting his opponent with “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch.” It was the growling curses of my grandfather when a cadre of squirrels attacked his fig trees. “Get outta here, you $#+&% varmits!” Thankfully, honey voices are still around, despite the efforts of some to neutralize deep south culture and transform us into a vanilla society. I’m not buying it.. Speaking honey is a trademark of my state and a warm greeting that never fails, especially when I’ve traveled far from home. It’s our southern identity, our poetry, and the quiet trademark of our way of life, slow, open, and welcoming. We may disagree, but we still share a cup of coffee on the front porch. Of course, there are rotten eggs, always have been, always will be, but if enough of us speak honey, we’ll drown them out. My remedy may seem simplistic, but it’s a start. “Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”*Proverbs 16:24

Madam Editor©Averyell A. Kessler In the olden, golden days at Murrah High School, I was editor of our newspaper, Hoofbeat, during my senior year. Sadly, I was forced to choose between prancing across the football field in a short white skirt, boots, and cowboy hat and editing the school newspaper. Words won, as they always do with me. So, my dreams of Murrah Miss glory vanished in the foggy mist of halftime and I learned to love ink on my fingers, the five W’s, and basic headline writing.The toughest part of the job was coming up with an editorial for each edition. Looking back, most were a mediocre combination of simpler times, ruthless faculty supervision, and teenage idiocy. Sneaking a cigarette in the upstairs bathroom was a serious crime, as was a speeding ticket resulting from the after school drag race on Riverside Drive. Graffiti was an unknown concept. I was once called to the principal’s office when a photo of a misplaced Budweiser can appeared on page 3. My bad! Thankfully, the business of uprooting history and parsing pronouns had not yet come along.I’ve often wondered what I’d say now with years under my belt and a bit of life experience. Instead of addressing the debacle at the debate team’s concession stand, maybe I should have said….Do not wear a black dress to the homecoming dance. Coco Channel was a genius and her little black dress looked great on Audrey Hepburn, but its hard to be sophisticated at sixteen. And a low neckline may cause trouble.Algebra and Geometry are critical components on a college application, but you’ll not use them in the vegetable section of the grocery store. The words protractor and compass may appear in the Sunday crossword puzzle, but they won’t be must-haves in your office. No one will ask you “If a train departs Jackson for a 185-mile trip to New Orleans at 45 MPH, and a second train leaves New Orleans traveling to Jackson……………..” You know the drill.Be careful in the backseat of anybody’s car.Congrats to those of you in typing class. You will not be taking dictation in the boss’s office or chained to a Remington Rand as big as a sea turtle. In the future, the typewriter will be a white elephant relic, but you will be a wiz on something called a laptop.Do not allow lipstick to melt in an evening purse, sit idly by when a coach tries to produce chlorine gas in chemistry class, or allow your eyeglasses to drop into a toilet. (You know who you are!)Take you gym clothes home to be washed at least every six weeks or you can just wait until they become gray, stiff and smell like sour milk.Be wary of eating a mustard drenched pronto pup at the fair before riding the ferris wheel.The assassination of JFK was a life changing, “where were you when” event that never goes away. Unfortunately, it will be the first of many. Buckle up.Our teachers are just as anxious as we are for summer vacation. They are happy when we do well, and unhappy when we do not. Only the worst of them don’t care. Step around those as you would a foaming puddle of sludge.High school has a lot in common with Wordsworth’s There was a Little Girl. When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid. High school years are a time in life when we know everything and nothing. The horrid part is short. It will end. The good part lasts forever.Some friends last for a lifetime, but not many. Choose carefully.Find you passion. Kiss it, rock it like a newborn, and hold it in your heart. Some dreams are not fulfilled until later in life. Much later.As Shakespeare said love all, trust few, do wrong to no one.

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