Saturday, December 23, 2017

Winter Rolled in on a Heavy Rain

And with it came cold weather and holiday activities...

Cliff's pecan pie December 2017
Cliff made a pecan pie. The recipe for this pie came out of a small booklet Cliff had been saving for many years. Until this particular pie, Cliff has always baked a pecan pie using one of his grandmother's recipes, and while that recipe turned out delicious, rich bodied pies, in my humble opinion this was one of the best he'd ever made. Drool a moment...

We also went back to West Point, Mississippi, a few days ago, hoping that our favorite waitress, Martha, was at the Main Street Market and Cafe to wish her a Merry Christmas. She and Cliff has hit it off over the past few months, and her story, like others I have met here in Mississippi is never just what they do. Martha is a waitress, but she is also a survivor of several health issues, which she has shared little by little with me and Cliff. But it is her unsinkable spirit and openness that endears her to us and I'm sure other people.

West Point was decorated for Christmas on our most recent trip, and it's nice to see that the street lamps were adorned with wreaths. The lamps themselves are nice and antique looking, which adds to the effect. Of course the Main Street Market Cafe was also decorated.

Cliff and Martha at the
Main Street Market Cafe
Here is Martha and Cliff in front of the tree in the cafe. We'd stopped in to see her and to have a piece of Elvis Presley cake, which is always good, though somewhat sinful, but the sin is absolved with strong, black coffee and a visit with Martha. We made sure to tell her about the pecan pie, which were made with pecans from the market. We have one bag of pecans and one pie crust left, which Cliff will use when he makes the next pie.

We learned of Martha's plans for Christmas, which in part involves making a soup for the Christmas get-together at her church. It's visits like these with people like Martha that makes for pleasant memories and knowing that Mississippi is much more than its bad reputation. People like Martha and others I have met here in restaurants, banks, coffee shops continually delight me with their sincerity and good nature.

After we left the cafe we spent a little more time driving up and down the downtown and getting a look at the Christmas decorations. On that day, we also drove through more streets lined with Victorian and Anti-bellum homes, and even though it's smaller than Columbus, the downtown there is nice, as well. Yes, West Point, like Columbus, has its big-box stores, but the real place is their downtown and historic neighborhoods.

Cliff is the shorter of the two figures
in case you were wondering
West Point has a beautiful park that runs through much of downtown. Here is Cliff standing next to the Santa in downtown West Point in the city park. Near this Santa is a typical southern town statue. The small towns commemorate either people or events with their statues, and while there is currently a movement to remove certain statues from prominence in many of the South's cities and parks I hope the small towns don't have to lose their singularity with an over-reaching enthusiasm for wiping out their history. And again I have to say that the people I've met in Columbus, Tupelo, West Point, Aberdeen, Starkville, Hattiesburg, or any other places I've been here in Mississippi belie the negative reputation that outsiders and those who have never been here seem to think defines this state.

Most of my experience with people in New Mexico is similar to the friendliness of the people in Mississippi. Of course I can only and always speak of my personal experiences. And I do have to say that added to their friendliness here in Mississippi (in the places I've actually been) are that people are open and not coy about talking about themselves, and they react quite willingly when you engage them in more than simple conversation.

The Virgin is the blue statue, visible just below the
bottom of Cliff's Jacket. She has been knocked over
by one of the sheep.
One of the popular Christmas displays in Columbus is the near-live Nativity on 3rd Avenue North, just two blocks from Main close to the downtown shops. In a neighborhood of historic homes and churches and funeral parlors is the Nativity with the live sheep and the statues of the Three Wise Men, Joseph and Mary, and of course the Baby Jesus. The sheep have access to the entire Nativity display, and so when we were there, one of the sheep came out of their hay-filled area to visit with us.

And now the weather is turning cold again, although the weather site I view has said that the deep south is due for a warmer than usual winter. I hope that's right, but we've already had snow and parts of the South are known for their winter ice storms.

Let's close out with a two-hour compilation of Christmas Blues...

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'Tis the Season

Right after Thanksgiving...Columbus, Mississippi springs to life.

Or maybe I should say the pace of events speeds up. And as I've already observed, hardly a weekend goes by that Columbus doesn't have something going on. In just the last few weeks, Cliff and I have attended these events:

  • Lighting of the Christmas Tree on the Riverwalk, just off Downtown
  • The Christmas Parade—at night
  • The Wassail Fest in Downtown
  • Handel's Messiah

Actually it was the lighting of a magnolia tree. Local businesses served hot chocolate and cookies and provided kids' activities, attended by Santa and Mrs. Claus and a speech by the mayor before the lights were flipped on, flooding the magnolia with brilliant lights. There was even a fake snow machine that everyone delighted in, and this year, not long after that, Columbus was treated to a real snow that blanketed everything. Just a few days later we attended the Christmas Parade when it came down College Street. We were invited to a person's home where people have been going for over 40 years to watch the parade from the porch. The cost of "admission" to this lovely home is that everyone who attends brings some sort of food. Of course, most of the people who come have been doing so for many years, and my neighbor Sharon invited Cliff and me to attend. She said that next year we would be expected to bring a food dish. Much of the evening was spent visiting and getting to know people. Cliff spent quality time getting to know the owner who has been throwing the porch party all these years. I met a fellow writer who has promised to call me, so that we can visit about our writing. She and her husband got out of New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina, and they have been living in Columbus ever since.

A few days after the Christmas Tree lighting was the Wassail Festival, which each year draws hundreds of merrymakers to the historic downtown district. Nearly two dozen merchants competed for Wassail Meister bragging rights. Wassail is traditionally a mulled punch often associated with Merry Olde England and Yuletide. It is a mixture of juices and spices that has been served for centuries.  Wassail Fest has been selected as a Top 20 Event in the Southeast, and has been held for many years.

As it turns out, we also attended the local Catholic Church's annual presentation of Handel's Messiah, performed by local choirs and orchestra. Dr. Doug Browning conducted. The Columbus High School Varsity Singers also performed before the Messiah event. The high school singers are also under the direction of Dr. Doug Browning. Last year this ensemble earned all superior ratings at district and state festivals. The group needs chorus gowns, and anyone interested in helping can contact Dr. Browning at 601-826-9952. Cliff and I were invited to The Messiah event by my neighbor Sharon, and after that we went to dinner with her and her best friend Pat, along with Pat's sister and her husband, Judge Davies. This was on an exciting night, when Alabama's special election was coming to a close, but try as I might, I couldn't find out the election results until after Cliff and I got home. Enough said on the subject of politics.

We also attended the sales event at Magnolia Antiques just after Thanksgiving. Magnolia Antiques in Columbus, MS, has been recognized as one of the best antiques stores in Mississippi and surrounding states. This annual event draws hundreds of visitors from as far away as Georgia and is not to be missed during the Christmas season, either. Both Cliff and I have bought luscious furniture from the store over the past year. Every year, this store brings in all kinds of food and drinks, and as it happened on the day we attended, we made a lunch out of the offerings and spent a good two hours shopping.

One of the things that Columbus, Mississippi, and other moderately sized southern towns still unabashedly celebrate is Christmas. I'm not commenting on whether or not this is considered "politically correct" because, after all, we are in the South and the celebrations of this season are still done in the ways they have been done for a long time. However, as will be evident from the video, here, it's an event that draws people together, people of all races and one would think all religions, Christian and non-Christian. Here is the vid and you decide...

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Place with Soul

...and Catfish

I held the first bite in my mouth letting the initial seasonings osmotically enter my tastebuds, and then I bit into the softly crisp batter and experienced another taste sensation. I was in heaven and I still had a plateful of fried catfish to consume, along with fried okra and pasta salad. That first bite told me I had just run across the best-tasting catfish in Columbus, MS—bar none. Cliff and I had made our first visit to Soul Fish Grill on the outskirts of Columbus on Highway 69. Next year, the cafe will have to change its name due to some agreement they have made with another restaurant in Tennessee with a similar name, which was established first. But for now look up Soul Fish, Columbus, Mississippi, and go as soon as you can. You don't even have to be a catfish fan to enjoy their other cuisine, all the creation of Chef Tavern Johnson. He studied culinary arts at Columbus's Mississippi University for Women (now co-ed) and simply referred to as "the W". According to Miss Barbara, Tavron's mother, Tavron has had plenty of restaurant experience, and I have to say his schooling and experience have come together to make one of the most authentic Southern cafes where I have had the pleasure of dining.

From the moment you drive up to the cafe and go on into the interior, rustic and down-home are words that come to mind. The ambiance of the place is rivaled only by the food, and it's the sort of place where you can watch the locals come and go, mainly waiting for take-out (at least on a week night), and the wait for the food to be prepared is worth every bit. Don't go on a Friday or Saturday night and expect to be seated right away. In its eleven months in existence, Soul Fish has developed quite a customer base.

And as in all the places I have been in columbus and elsewhere in Mississippi, people are friendly, eager to break into conversation, and Miss Barbara and Tasha were more than willing to talk to me and Cliff as we waited on our food, or to advise us on which desert to try, and to let Cliff take their picture, with me in the middle (fat and satisfied with my meal and the wicked wicked desserts Cliff and I shared, consisting of pound cake and peach cobbler).

Miss Barbara Johnson (left) Tasha (God Daughter)(right)
and me in the middle.
The atmosphere of the cafe is enhanced by the music, which the Chef also chooses. That night it was traditional blues and filled the cafe from an excellent sound system. Tavron on comes out of the kitchen, according to Miss Barbara, to change the music.

The cafe also serves wine and beer, along with soft drinks, tea, and coffee. The food menu is diverse and should be able to satisfy many palates, although when I venture into a new southern restaurant and catfish is on the menu, that's what I choose. Plan a trip to Soul Fish. Cliff had the shrimp and grits (a new favorite of his, which he has tried in at least three different restaurants in the area.

Finally, I have to say that I didn't like catfish before I moved to Mississippi. This can be explained by the fact that I spent most of my life in the desert of Southern New Mexico and any fresh fish we might have had access to was caught in our lakes or rivers and prepared by amateurs at home. The rest of our fish comes frozen and inevitably tastes fishy, and in the case of catfish, kind'a dirty. But since I've been in Mississippi, I've had nothing but fresh fish, and the catfish here is surprisingly light, tender, and white. I've had it grilled and fried, and there's just something about battered and fried that can't be beat.

Further, I've had to give up on getting authentic tasting Mexican food here in Columbus. But that is to say, authentic according to what I grew up with, including the famous Hatch chile, which you can now get across the country by savvy restaurants. But those down-home seasonings that distinguish New Mexican Mexican food just aren't replicated here in Mississippi, and so I've had to make catfish my food of choice when it's offered in restaurants I go to. Other cafes offer BBQ and chicken dishes, and when it's Southern it's the best. There are still many many area restaurants and cafes that I haven't been to yet in either Columbus or any number of towns within a hundred-mile radius, but so far, for my money I nominate Soul Fish Grill as the best.