The Boys From Biloxi: Memorable in an Unexpected Way

Boys from Biloxi.2John Grisham’s latest book The Boys From Biloxi, took me on a stroll down Memory Lane. Set in the 1950s and 1960s on the Mississippi Coast, the novel features authentic locations, most destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  In the plot, boyhood friends follow separate ways of life — one takes over the Dixie Mafia and the other becomes Mississippi’s Attorney General, determined to “clean up the Coast” and avenge his father’s murder.

After reading two of Grisham’s newer novels realistically set in the Florida Panhandle, I eagerly preordered The Boys From Biloxi in hopes of adding it to the Biloxi section of my book,  A Literary Travelers Guide to the Gulf South. I expected the best of Grisham since he is a native Mississippian who knows the Coast, the landscape and seascape, and its history. I didn’t, however, expect to relive so many memories while reading it.

The “bad guys” in Grisham’s book gather at Baricev’s, a local seafood restaurant popular with politicians and mobsters as well as locals and tourists. I loved Baricev’s. My favorite dish was their marvelous, marinated crab claws. The beach restaurant was rebuilt after Camille but eventually succumbed to the casinos and abandoned its location featuring great views of the Mississippi Sound. The site became home to the Biloxi Belle Casino.

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Baricev’s seafood restaurant, Biloxi, circa 1960. PHOTO CREDIT: CHAUNCEY HINMAN

I recognized some of the shady places in Grisham’s book too. I once went into one of the strip clubs he describes. I remember the bar and the strippers but didn’t notice the backroom action of the novel. I probably was in a state of shock that a date had actually taken me to a strip club!

While many of the locations are beer joints and dives, the exclusive and posh Broadwater Beach Hotel he mentions had a famous marina bar (Mrs. Brown’s) that served knock-you-off-the-bar-stool Daily Doubles accompanied with a great view, if you could keep your eyeballs in focus.  Just reading the recipe is inebriating!New recipe

I also remember a trip to Ship Island, the site of the Civil War Fort Massachusetts. My Girl Scout Troop’s ride on the ferry to spend the day on Ship Island resulted in munching on too much homemade peanut butter candy and the worst sunburn I’ve ever had. In the novel, the boyhood friends take their own small boat, travel the twelve miles to Ship Island, and camp out before going their separate ways. They didn’t have peanut butter candy.

Biloxi ChurchesGrisham describes other famous landmarks like the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer (only a historic marker remains today) and the picturesque St. Michael Catholic Church, which still stands at Point Cadet, the section of Biloxi where Grisham’s main characters, all immigrant families, live.

The Boys From Biloxi includes several references to Grisham’s favorite Coast restaurant, Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, which has weathered all the storms and serves great food in a fine dining atmosphere. In 1967, I enjoyed dining there, after waiting for a table sitting in the bar with my date. The steak was wonderful and I married that date.

Some of the book’s action takes place in Pascagoula, where I grew up. Grisham describes a Pascagoula “hotel” I can’t place. Pascagoula was more of a motel and boarding house town in the 1950s and 60s. The Jackson County Courthouse, where one mobster goes to trial, is memorable as I spent plenty of hours there as the daughter of a deputy sheriff. And of course, I always considered the courthouse glamorous since my mother saw Charlton Heston, Bruce Bennett, and Robert Stack there on a whirlwind movie star tour in December 1951. The soon-to-be-famous actors spoke from the Jackson County Courthouse steps to a throng of adoring movie goers!

I also find it interesting that Grisham portrays Jackson County residents as scornful and judgmental of the neighboring counties for operating strip joints and gambling backrooms and serving illegal booze. I sure knew plenty of Jackson Countians who loved to go to Biloxi — and it wasn’t to shop. Our politicians weren’t that squeaky clean either in the 1950s and 60s.

I appreciate John Grisham taking me down memory lane, but I wish it would have been a quicker trip! The book, billed as a thriller, was more of a snooze-fest. The closing chapter, once I finally trudged through the 454 pages, lacks resolution because the protagonist and antagonist never really face off.  If I hadn’t been reviewing it for this blog, I would have shelved it.  But it sure was fun remembering sitting at Mrs. Brown’s marina bar, watching the sun set, and drinking a daily double.

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Cozy Southern Christmas books plus a movie

If you’ve finished Christmas preparations with time to spare, cozy up with some hot cocoa and enjoy these books about Christmas, all taking place somewhere from Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola. And, when you’ve finished reading, I’ve got a movie for you that comes with a field trip.

I chose the stretch from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to Apalachicola, Florida, to accompany my book, A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South.

Christmas Gazebo

Florida Panhandle authors Marilyn Turk and Lenora Worth teamed to write the “then and now” Christmas book, The Christmas Gazebo. These companion novellas – both  set in the same town on the same piece of property decades apart– are fascinating historic romances filled with memorable, believable characters in an ideal holiday setting.  In the first part, “The Christmas Gift,” author Marilyn Turk sets the 1910 scene with the building of a gazebo to invigorate the newly established Chautauqua Assembly gathering at fictional Springlake. It’s Christmastime and hundreds of people are coming to the educational convention. An enterprising young female photographer documents the assembly goers, takes photos around the lake, and inspires the Chautauqua chairman to build a gazebo and incorporate some festive Christmas activities and decorations. She even gets the local woman’s club involved, which is dear to my heart. In both parts of the Christmas Gazebo, the setting resembles DeFuniak Springs, Florida. However, Lenora Worth, author of “The Christmas Surprise” (Part II), told me the novel also includes a touch of historic Milton, Florida, including another nod to the city with the main character named Lynsey Milton. The second part is a more contemporary romance with an energetic public relations marketer visiting Springlake, hoping to revive its tourist trade.

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St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Milton FL. PHOTO CREDIT Episcopal Church

The collaboration of the two authors, Turk and Worth, is remarkable. I felt as if I was reading one voice, one author. I highly recommend it for those who love historical novels set in authentic locations (even with a fictional name). Next year I’m booking the Victorian Christmas Home tour in DeFuniak Springs and rereading The Christmas Gazebo. And if the Florida Panhandle is in your travel plans for 2023, stop by DeFuniak Springs and look for the assembly hall, little library, Victorian cottages, and homes overlooking a perfectly round lake, just like those described in the book.  The “quaint little white chapel almost as old as the town” reminds me of the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Milton, Florida.

Redbird Christmas

Every Christmas, my neighbor rereads Fannie Flagg’s A Redbird Christmas – and I understand why. It’s a touching, heartwarming Christmas tale of new beginnings and Christmas miracles. The book is set in the fictional town of Lost River, patterned after Magnolia Springs, Alabama, along Mobile Bay. Magnolia Springs has beautiful trees, river views, and historic homes. It’s so quaint that it’s the only town in the U.S. where mail is still delivered by boat. When I visited, I felt as if I stepped back in time driving down the tree-lined lanes. In the book, Oswald T. Campbell, moves to fictional Lost River  after receiving a terminal diagnosis. In an outdated advertisement, he learns of the health benefit of Lost River and heads south from the snow with no reservation – literally he didn’t reserve a room. Upon his arrival, he spends his last money to rent a room in a home, waiting for death to call. As he waits, he discovers a passion for birdwatching and a love for the residents and the town of Lost River. His health, of course, receives a Christmas miracle, as does the town. I no longer borrow my neighbor’s copy. I’m buying my own so I can read it every Christmas too.

For some hilarious holiday laughter and a quick read, I recommend Double Deck the Halls by Gretchen Archer set at the fictional Bellisimo Casino, patterned after the Beau Rivage in Biloxi. The story is told by the main character, the grandmother of darling twin girls whose parents live and work at the casino. She has a rollicking sense of humor and some clever get-me-out-of-trouble skills. And she needs those skills when she’s held hostage in the casino. You never know what this grandmother will pull out of her pocket next as she tries to disarm the bomb wrapped around the other hostage. An extra nice touch is the grandmother’s description of the casino at Christmas. I hear the Beau Rivage is really breathtaking at Christmas too.

Double Deck the Halls

While along the Mississippi Coast, drive a little west along Highway 90 to see the wonderful Christmas lights (the largest in the entire state) at Gulfport Harbor Lights Festival at the intersection of Highway 49 and 90. I went last year and was delighted with the light display, especially the musical orchestration and “dancing” trees. The light display is the setting for the Lifetime movie Christmas in Mississippi. The 2017 trailer offers a glimpse of the dancing trees I liked so much. Even if you can’t make it to the light display, the movie is entertaining, one of the best Lifetime productions, and a great way to cozy up with some cocoa.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and thank you for reading!

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Clippings from the Past: Remembering Edwina, Pondering the Future

Opening photo

In my most shared blog post Mississippi and Beyond: The Merry Mansion, I feature photos I took of an abandoned mansion on the Mississippi Gulf Coast before it was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969.

I posted the pictures after the essay “Abandoned Memories” appeared in my book, The Gumbo Diaries: Mississippi and Beyond. The book is how Lindsey Baronich found me. She writes, “I live on the MS Gulf Coast and was recently given my great aunt’s teenage scrapbook. She passed at 18 in 1926. In it, there is a picture of a home you wrote about in one of your books. I googled the last name written on the bottom of the picture and stumbled upon your book. I have an original picture of the Piaggio home on the beach that was in Gulfport (then called Mississippi City). The photo would be 1926 or earlier.”

Today, December 15, marks the day in 1926 that Lindsey’s Great Aunt Edwina died — young, beautiful, and only 18.

My correspondence with Lindsey grew. The images of Edwina captivated me as did her snapshot of the Piaggio home. What was her connection with the home? Had Edwina visited the house? Did she know the family? Or was it simply a photo of a glamorous house on the beach? Most of all, why did Edwina die so young?  

Edwina Lindset

Edwina Lindsey. Photo provided by the Family

Research on newspapers.com helped answer my questions and tell her story . . .

“graduated from Jackson Central High School June 1926, the largest class to date numbering 127. . .”

“a talented pianist often performing in recitals in Pass Christian (MS)”

“. . . Mrs. Lindsey left yesterday for Baltimore where her daughter lies critically ill in one of the hospitals. . .”

“ill for many months”

“where she had been the past eight weeks receiving special treatment”

“malignant throat growth”

“the body . . . of Miss Edwina Lindsey . . .will arrive on Train No. 3 tomorrow and be carried to the home of her grandmother. . .”

“the young lady died at Dr. Howard Kelly’s Sanatorium in Baltimore, Maryland”

“will be buried by the side of her father”

“survived by her twin” . . . “grieving mother and sorrowing grandmother . . .”

From old newspapers I learned Edwina was raised in Pass Christian (MS) before moving to Jackson where she graduated from high school. I viewed photos of her high school classmates. I learned her widowed mother, a former teacher, was working as a home demonstration agent in Jackson. I learned Dr. Howard Kelly, who treated Edwina in Baltimore, was one of four founding physicians of John Hopkins. When living on the Coast, Edwina played the piano for community events and benefits and won the music medal from Quarles School. She even played at the Pass Christian High School graduation of her older brother Reavis.

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Edwina Irene Lindsey and twin her brother Edward, Lindsey Baronich’s grandfather. PHOTO CREDIT: Lindsey Family

After reading the social columns, news reports, and obituaries about her, I wondered again how she was connected to the Piaggo home. I imagined its ballroom festooned with Victorian holiday garlands and red ribbons and Edwina standing there. Perhaps she once played the piano in the ballroom performing her rendition of “Moonlight  Sonata” like she played at the Presbyterian Church benefit. Or maybe beautiful Edwina swirled around the dance floor at a cotillion ball at the Piaggio home.

The Merry Mansion, as the locals called the Piaggio home, exists only in memories now. After falling into ruin in the 1950s, Hurricane Camille struck the final blow, destroying it in August 1969. Closing Photo

No longer do young women like Edwina carefully clip newspaper articles and paste them into scrapbooks to preserve their lives for future generations. The printed newspapers which gave me so many clues to Edwina’s life are dying. 

Journalists no longer write about train numbers which carry bodies to grieving grandmothers. Editors no longer print heartfelt obituaries as a courtesy. In most cases, obituaries cost hundreds of dollars, purchased by the inch like advertisements. A death notice (name, town of residence, date of death) is usually free. Despite this morbid side of continual revenue, printed newspapers are disappearing. The Mississippi Press Register, Mobile Press-Register, Birmingham News, and Huntsville Times will stop publishing print editions in February 2023. This year, 2022, Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., did away with Saturday print editions for 136 newspapers.

Edwina’s paper photographs in her scrapbook, as great niece Lindsey points out, are also a thing of the past.  As we move into a paperless world, our catalog of digital images increases with backup drives, flash drives, iClouds and One Drives. Today’s young people don’t clip newspaper articles. They Snapchat, Facebook, Tweet, TikTok, and Instagram their memories.

And as I ponder the past through photographs, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings, I wonder — How will future generations learn about us? How will we pass down our memories to those who come after us? How will we archive our lives?

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Take your imagination along on a Literary Walking Tour

Locomotive

A locomotive like this on Garden Street pulled the cars of visiting writers like Wallace Stevens in 1919. Stop #16 on my walking tour of downtown Pensacola. PHOTO BY DIANE SKELTON

Get out your walking shoes! History buffs can now hike America’s 1st Settlement Trail in Pensacola, Florida. The three-mile trek through downtown follows a bold maroon stripe down city streets to help visitors view historical landmarks.  

If you’re more of a book aficionado, you might prefer my Literary Map of Downtown Pensacola. This trail follows a make-believe yellow brick road to get your imagination running.  It’s a creative way to discover the places in downtown Pensacola where writers walked and the places they wrote about. The Literary Walking Map has 22 stops. Thanks to the genre of historical fiction, some literary stops are also on the history trail.

Pelicans and electrical boxes stand where gardens once grew at Palafox and Garden streets. The garden sites were designed during French occupation. Stop #18 is associated with Marilyn Turk’s novels. PHOTO BY DIANE SKELTON

This courthouse, mentioned in a John Grisham novel, stands on the site of the former San Carlos Hotel, where famous writers would have stayed when visiting America’s First Settlement. Stop #19. PHOTO BY DIANE SKELTON

My original plans were for a driving tour, but since I was doing a local Author Showcase at the West Florida Public Library and a Craft Fair in Gulf Breeze, I wanted to offer a giveaway to readers who stopped by.  And, of course, I needed a recognizable landmark – the Pensacola main library – Stop 17.

My walking trail is a little longer than the 1st Settlement Trail. The Literary Map covers somewhere between three and five miles round trip, depending on the route chosen. Beware of the heat in July or August – it’s a trek. On second thought, it might be cooler as a biking or hiking trail, but there’s one super steep hill on North Palafox when heading to the (appropriately named) North Hill Historic District.

You might even consider picking up one of those annoying rental scooters left abandoned on street corners cluttering America’s 1st Settlement. Just beware of the downhill return! Fortunately, there are plenty of places to catch your breath – walk around the locomotive like the one that brought Pulitzer Prize winning poet Wallace Stevens to town, step inside the library to see the local authors’ section, or sit on the benches at the Rose Garden Storytelling spot.

A hundred and fifty years ago, places in Pensacola seemed much closer, as I learned by reading Marilyn Turk’s books, Rekindled Light and Rebel Light. Her characters trotted from the port to the piers to their home to the gardens on what is now Garden Street wearing layers of antebellum clothing while they lived in the breezy, bustling port city. Though early residents might have dodged a horse drawn wagon or two, they could later reach a destination fairly quickly without the hindrance of automobile traffic or red lights. They could have even taken the North Hill trolley line since streetcars ran from 1884 to 1932 in Pensacola. You can still climb aboard one of these electric streetcars at the Museum of Commerce. Inside there’s a reconstructed street scene of turn-of-the-century (1900s) Pensacola. The electric streetcar near the newspaper office on my map.

Creating the map was so much fun, I’m wondering if I could do this for other cities like Mobile, Alabama, or Apalachicola, Florida. Perhaps I’ll even talk to Emerald Coast Writers about securing a grant for placing placards along the route, but I’m sticking with my imaginary yellow brick road. It took Dorothy to some interesting places, like all really good books do.

Email thegumbodiaries@gmail.com for a printable PDF!

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Day-After-Thanksgiving Turkey Gumbo Recipes

turkey art

Anyone from Louisiana will tell you, the day-after Thanksgiving means turkey gumbo.  If you’re like most Americans, there’s a turkey carcass hogging a shelf in the refrigerator and there’s nothing better to make with it than turkey gumbo.  This year we’re feasting on our favorite, Greenberg’s Smoked Turkey from Tyler, Texas.

As I study the sources of these nine recipes, I’m thankful for the dear friends, and neighbors (Tootsie Greenberg Goodman), colleagues and fellow writers who, over the years, have shared their lives and recipes with me, and for the new friends who continue to enrich my life with their kindness and generosity. Enjoy some turkey gumbo and an empty refrigerator top shelf.

TG 8

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Searching for writers on an architectural-art tour

I rarely travel on bus tours, but the opportunity to go behind the scenes to a castle in Fairhope, Alabama, was irresistible. Only group tours are welcome to Mosher Castle, a place I’d researched for my book, but viewed only from the street.  So I climbed aboard the Good Times motor coach for a day trip to Fairhope, about 65 miles away, with 31 other Panhandle Senior Travelers.

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Side view of Mosher Castle. The stones are from Mobile Bay. Mementos are inlaid between the stones.

Along with the storybook castle, we would also visit the Fairhope Museum of History and the Eastern Shore Art Center, both which offered unexpected writer-related surprises.  The Mosher Castle, however, was the showstopper on the tour.

The castle property consists of three castles. The original, Sheldon Castle, was built by artist-sculptor-writer Craig Sheldon, a self-made Renaissance man. As a popular newspaper satirist and illustrator, he is included in my book, A Literary Travelers Guide to the Gulf South: Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola.  He began building his family castle in 1946 using reclaimed and recycled materials and a fervent imagination. Now a Baldwin County Historic Home, it operates as an Air B & B. His daughter Pagan, who grew up in Sheldon Castle, and her husband Dean Mosher led the tour of their Mosher Castle home, which is adjacent to Sheldon Castle. The third castle, Boom Castle, built in 2020, displays a similar whimsical architectural flair and is also constructed with stones from Mobile Bay.

Storybook houses built to resemble those in European fairy tales or Snow White’s house originated in America in the early 1920s. The organic and whimsical architecture of a storybook house is often associated with the Arts & Crafts Movement, along with Bungalows, Craftsman and Mission Style designs. Craig Sheldon took the idea of the storybook house and transformed it into a castle for his family. Daughter Pagan, however, points out the castle had one bathroom, and she had to climb a three-story tower to reach her bedroom.

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Dragon protecting the castles in Fairhope, seen from the tower window.

When Pagan Sheldon and artist Dean Mosher married, he too built his family a castle with the help of father-in-law Craig Sheldon. I was delighted to see a small niche in the kitchen with a tribute to her father, Craig. His handiwork is present throughout this home too. We climbed the 24-step spiral staircase to the tower to see where the Mosher children lived and walked out on the balcony to witness the iron dragon sculpture on the roof protecting the castle. Part of the roof, with its multicolored pattern, is a result of scavenging numerous job sites and acquiring leftover shingles. Everywhere within the house — nooks, crannies, cabinets, and cupboards — whimsical touches in etched or stained glass and tiny carved elements like fish or dragons proclaim this as an artist’s home.  Outside, a bridge to nowhere, fairy gardens, tiny waterfalls, a gypsy wagon, and a miniature moat, enchant the visitor. Much to my delight, Craig Sheldon’s typewriter was on display in the tower in Mosher Castle. The photo fits well with my collection of typewriter photos of other famous authors – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

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Craig Sheldon’s trusty Corona typewriter looks a little crooked in the photo. It’s in in a circular tower but he’d probably like the humor.

Following the castle tour, I lunched at Sandra’s Place (mentioned in a Fannie Flagg novel) and stopped in at Page & Palette Bookstore, one of the best independent bookstores in the Gulf South (and now carrying my book). I then joined the group at Fairhope Museum of History where I found a display case of books and information on Fairhope writers. Upstairs, an exhibit of Craig Sheldon’s sculpture — or critters as he called them — fills almost an entire room. The sculptures, tabletop-sized, often sent political messages, as if they were 3-D political cartoons. One sculpture, striking and appropriately preserved in a history museum, depicts the evils of the Ku Klux Klan. The museum also has a mural painted by Dean Mosher, noted worldwide for historical paintings.

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The Fairhope Museum of History recognizes the value of Fairhope’s writers and preserves their contributions.

Next, we headed for the Eastern Shore Art Center, the community art center. A nice traveling show by Studio Art Quilt Associates caught my eye. Fiber artists posed and answered their own questions in fiber, as “How do we deal with a changing world?” “How will I deal with my granddaughter moving to another country?” Twenty-nine artists answered 29 different questions – symbolically stitching their responses rather than using words to respond.

IMG_2757On a lower level of the art center, I found an exhibit directly related to my book – well, in a roundabout sort of way.  In my book I mention the Hall of Honor at the Center for Literary Arts at Coastal Alabama Community College in Monroeville. In the Hall of Honor hang portraits of the state’s literary icons created by symbolist artist Nall, himself an Alabama icon. I’d seen photos of his work online but seeing these pieces in person at the Eastern Shore Art Center gave me a genuine appreciation for his work. The series at ESAC isn’t portraits of writers, but more appropriately, portraits of artists. Unfortunately, few people traipse down to this lower level to see his work. They’ve missed a rare opportunity to see a sketch or photo of the artists, surrounded by symbols. The works resemble a blend of medieval icons and illustrated manuscripts, with gold gilt and symbols embedded within the artwork.

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It’s nice to visit a town where artists and writers are considered an integral part of the community, so much so that they are immortalized in a history museum. The quantity of Alabama’s creative artists and writers never ceases to amaze me.  And I’m not surprised Fairhope is one of the 20 Most Beautiful Small Towns to Visit according to TriptoDiscover.com

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I keep missing literary places . . . it’s back to Apalachicola

Rebel Light

When I messaged author Marilyn Turk about my book, she responded with news of another of her books set in a region my book features –Apalachicola, Florida. All books in her Coastal Lights Legacy series are set in Florida. I had already discovered Rekindled Light, the fourth book, set in Pensacola.  Rebel Light, the first in the series, begins in Pensacola, but both the main character and the action quickly move to Apalachicola in 1861 during the  early stages of the Civil War.

Those who enjoy historical fiction will appreciate the well-researched novel, a blend of genres – historical fiction and Christian romance. Rebel Light will definitely be included in the second edition of A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South. Rebel Light not only includes Apalachicola, but also St. George Island and St. Vincent Island, just across the Apalachicola Bay bridge.

Despite devastating hurricanes like Michael, Hermine, and Dennis, some of the landmarks Turk uses as settings still exist and are waiting for me to return to Apalachicola to take the tours.

cotton warehouse
The Old Cotton Warehouse. Photo Credit: Apalachicola.com

Apalachicola, in 1861, was a bustling seaport with nearly 2000 residents, many making their fortunes in the cotton and shipping business.  As Turk describes the town, “Steamboat whistles rang out over the din of business in the downtown streets which were full of wagons, people and bales of cotton. . . where the waterfront began, rows of three-story red brick warehouses stretched along the water’s edge.”  Downtown Apalachicola is much quieter now, but vestiges of many of the old warehouses still stand, some converted into shops. In fact, the Apalachicola Center for Culture and Arts is the Old Cotton Warehouse, built in 1838.  Of course, oyster harvesting and shrimping were important at that time, too.

As the plot unfolds, Kate, the main character, receives an invitation to the Cotton Ball, which is held at the finest house in the area, The Orman House, located on 

OrmanHouse
The Orman House. Photo Credit: Downtown Apalachicola.com

the outskirts of the city on a high bluff, overlooking the river. On my next trip to Apalachicola, I’m going to visit the Orman House and envision being at the ball. At the Cotton Ball, Kate meets botanist Alvan Chapman, a fellow guest. The botanical garden adjacent to The Orman House, the Chapman Botanical Garden, honors him.  As Kate and her Aunt Sally visit with Chapman in the garden during the ball, they admire Orman’s orange grove and Chapman points out several native plants.

Trinity
Trinity Episcopal Church. Photo Credit: Diane Skelton

In the book, the families attend church at the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. Attending church or being seen at church was an important aspect of social circles. The building dates to 1837 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Turk’s description of the interior of the church and the dedicated pews is fascinating.

Kate, who has come to live at her great aunt’s home on the outskirts of the city, has a clear view of both St. George’s Island and St. Vincent’s Island. In order to warn her father’s ship about the blockade, she, along with a Union soldier she and her aunt rescued and nursed to health, make a night crossing by boat to the lighthouse on St. George Island.

Now, I can connect Rebel Light to the wonderful St. George Lighthouse and Museum just across the bridge from Apalachicola on St. George Island. On my next trip, I’m going inside the lighthouse, not just the museum. I want to climb the steps that Kate and Joshua climbed, lantern in hand.

St. George

The lighthouse Kate climbs to save her father. Photo Credit: Diane Skelton

I’d also like to go on the Tour of Homes in Apalachicola, in hopes of going inside a Widow’s Walk like the one in Great Aunt Sally’s home. Widow’s Walks, viewing rooms or porches on the top of Victorian homes, allowed a wife to watch for the return of her seafaring husband. If he doesn’t make it back, she’s a widow. The Gibson Inn in downtown Apalachicola has a Widow’s Walk, as do several homes like Hays House on the corner of 4th Street and Avenue D.

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Note the Widow’s Walk atop the Gibson Inn. Photo Credit: TheGibsonInn.com

And the next time I go, I’m going to take the walking tour so I won’t miss anything. It will be my third trip in a year!

WALKING TOUR LINK http://www.apalachicolabay.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Apalachicola-walking-tour-2021.pdf

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Cooking on the Road, Eating like the Locals

“Add recipes!” some writer friends suggested as I was writing my book A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South. Somewhere along the traveling, researching, writing, and publishing road, the idea got lost in the process. I did include dishes some authors order at their favorite restaurants, but my research on popular foods of the coastal area buried itself in some computer file. I had toyed with the idea of turning favorite food into an interesting sidebar, but then I figured Who wants to cook on vacation?

British books

These pocket-sized recipe collections are from Cornwall and Devon in England.

I figured wrong. Last week when I picked up about 75 cookbooks from Barbara, a friend who is downsizing, the idea of regional recipes resurfaced. Her collection includes cookbooks of all sizes and shapes from Italy, Britain, Tuscany, the Caribbean, New England, and even four tiny ones from Cornwall – all places she visited. It seems travelers do like to take home recipes. Maybe cooking is a great way to relive vacation.

Gulf cookbook

This 1974 copy of Gulf Coast Gourmet was well loved by its former owner.

One of Barbara’s cookbooks, Gulf Coast Gourmet (which I first read in 2018 when finding 300 gumbo recipes to celebrate News Orleans’ 300th anniversary) features family recipes from coastal Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Foreword explains the cuisine of this tri-state area, “Our traditions include an appreciation of good eating brought to us by French, Spanish and Italian ancestors and made individual by the American skill of using imaginatively whatever was at hand: often improving upon the past . . . fine herbs and spices with the delicate flavor of choice seafood – an art which dates back to the early days of this historic area.”  Gulf Coast Gourmet, compiled and published by the Foley (Alabama) Woman’s Club, was so popular it went through eleven printings.  And as for gumbo, probably the most popular dish in all three states, here’s a shout-out to Native Americans and Africans, neither group which receives culinary accolades. We wouldn’t have gumbo without them!

As I evaluate what goes in the next edition of A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South, I’m considering a few local recipes to offer a flavor of the coastal region. It might take some doing to get copyright permission, but the sidebars will look something like this:

WHAT THE LOCALS EAT

 THE MISSISSIPPI COAST

When visiting the Bay St. Louis area, a fellow writer interviewed locals about what they cooked at home and their family favorites. From their responses she learned the dishes are heavily influenced by French cuisine due to the proximity to New Orleans. So, it’s not surprising to see red beans and rice, crawfish pie, shrimp creole, and shrimp jambalaya on the list. Locals also enjoy crab, crab bisque, oysters, and red drum (that’s fish).  One woman explained many home cooks follow the traditions of their original ethnic group. Since this coastal region included many Italians and Sicilian settlers, the popular dishes include seafood mixed with rich tomato sauces, peppers, and cheeses.  Farther east along the coast, Mississippians enjoy dishes like stuffed flounder and deviled crab, smoked mullet, fried fish, and raw oysters. Every town on The Mississippi Coast likes shrimp – boiled, fried, sauteed, grilled, blackened, every way possible and especially in gumbo.Shrimp Creole

crawfish pieDeviled Crab3Stuffed Founder

LOWER ALABAMA

Alabamians love crab dishes, especially the rich lump blue crab meat for which their coastal area is so famous. And they love shrimp, just like Forrest Gump says, “fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, baked shrimp, shrimp with rice, shrimp etouffee,” and so forth. One favorite is Alabama Baked Shrimp, much less clean-up than the traditional shrimp boil.  The variety of shrimp dishes range from traditional shrimp cocktail to the more sophisticated shrimp delicacies found in Alabama’s remarkable number of superior seafood restaurants. Fried softshell crabs are also a seasonal favorite along with fish dishes created from Spanish Mackerel and Redfish.

Shrimp caradeenSnapper ChowderFish CheeseShrimp boil

FLORIDA PANHANDLE

Just a few miles farther east in the Florida Panhandle, the appetite for oyster dishes grows and multiplies all the way to Apalachicola, once one of the largest producers of oysters in the U.S. Traditional Thanksgiving celebrations in Pensacola included oyster stew or gumbo as an appetizer and oyster stuffing/dressing to go with the turkey. Fish dishes vary, but the most popular Northwest Florida specialties feature grouper, snapper and pompano. Shrimp remains a seafood staple in Florida too. When it comes to ethnic favorites Pensacola-area family dishes are inspired by both Greek and Spanish settlers. Hosting a fish fry, crab boil, or shrimp boil is a traditional way to welcome family, friends, and out-of-town guests.Red Snapper

Seveille ShrimipFish FryOyster Stew

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Book Review: Please send me 1 copy of . . .

Singing River openingBest benefit of my first job? Free books! As the assistant editor for a teachers’ magazine, part of my job was reviewing books. Of course, this was decades ago when authors sent real hardback books for review – not a PDF or an ebook. That’s how I got my first edition of Pascagoula: Singing River City. For two years, before I took the job, the book had stood on a shelf of books to review, all gathering dust. I took it home with a monograph of Eudora Welty’s stories, pre-Pulitzer Prize.

Singing River CoverBut it was Pascagoula: Singing River City that held a personal connection. The book documents the folklore, legends, and history of my hometown, almost 200 miles from where I worked. Plus it was written by the son of my junior high music teacher. The author, Jay Higginbotham, then a young historian, went on to become a noted Alabama and Mississippi historian, archivist, world traveler, and author.

Slipped inside the review copy of the book was a black and white 5.5 x 8.5-inch card, printed on both sides. The flip side included a handwritten note, “Review Copy — Higginbotham is a former Miss. school teacher. His mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were Mississippi school teachers. Thanks.”  I recognized the writing and suspect it was written by his mother, the chorus teacher we affectionately called “Miss Higgy.” The book, sans jacket, is bright orange faux linen with gold embossing of both the title and author’s name.

I was reminded of the legend of The Singing River in Jay Higginbotham’s book when reading Carolyn Haines’ novel Touched. Set in fictional Jexville in southeast Mississippi near the Pascagoula River, Touched refers to the legend of the Pascagoula River when star-crossed lovers walked to their deaths in the Pascagoula River bringing along the entire Pascagoula tribe with them. The tribe would rather face death than surrender and be slaves to the Biloxi. Haines includes the name of lovers – warrior chief Altama of the Pascagoula and princess Anola of the Biloxi. In Touched, a part-Indian character tells one of the most poignant and descriptive accounts of the legend of the two Indian lovers that I’ve ever read or heard.

Ding! Bells chimed in the recesses of my mind. Anola meant something to me. Then I recalled The Anola Club of Pascagoula. Now, fifty years later I realize the significance of the name Anola. It’s the oldest women’s club in the town – like Princess Anola, these women give their all for Pascagoula.

Carolyn Haines’ Touched is another book I’ll include in a second edition of A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola.

Touched 2022

2022 Cover

Set in the 1920s in southeast Mississippi, the Pascagoula River, its currents, terrain, history, and secrets play an important role in the plot.  It’s obvious to anyone who’s been to this part of the South that Carolyn Haines, a native of Lucedale in southeast Mississippi, knows the geography well, especially the waterways. She describes the Pascagoula River as “yellow-red, sluggish looking . . . The current wasn’t a steady flow . . . but a confusion of small eddies. In places it was smooth as glass. Suddenly a churning motion would break the water and a swirl of suction would be revealed. Whatever luckless object happened by would be suddenly sucked deep into the river.”

When the characters take an excursion ferry to Ship Island, Mattie distinguishes between the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.  “The contrast between the Sound and the Gulf was magical. We played in pure white sand where the water foamed up at us, hissing and laughing.” Mattie had earlier described the Mississippi Sound as a “landscape of gray.” The Sound’s white man-made beaches didn’t exist until the 1950s, but even white sands didn’t change the color of the water.

Though the scene sounds peaceful and calm, the book is not. Mattie is a sixteen-year-old bride sold by her stepfather to a bachelor in Jexville. The husband is even worse than the stepfather. The plot includes hurricanes, mass murders, vigilante mobs, and a nine-year-old girl struck by lightning. Themes are numerous including women’s rights, justice, abuse, survival, hope, vengeance, acceptance, nature, and lost love. Nightmares, prophecies, mobsters, gamblers, and judgmental better-than-thou townspeople create a turbulent atmosphere, as readers come face to face with man’s inhumanity to man and one young bride’s psychological means of survival. Like the other two books in the Jexville Chronicles, the reader is left wondering about the beliefs of so-called religious folk. Underneath it all, the river casts

Touched 1

1996 Cover

spells and fuels nightmares, while uncovering the past and prophesying the future. Touched is a dark, deep book, and I hope the re-release will find a strong readership to appreciate it.

If this tale of star-crossed lovers rings a bell with you, perhaps you’ve heard Johnny  Preston’s 1959 hit, “Running Bear Little White Dove.”  Pascagoulans claim the song was inspired by the Legend of the Singing River. The song was written by J. P.  “The Big Bopper” Richardson who died in the Buddy Holly plane crash, the same year the song made the charts, so no one will ever know if the song is really about the Indian lovers who walked to their death in The Singing River. The Big Bopper didn’t mention their names – Altama and Anola. But check out this YouTube video and imagine it set in the Pascagoula River Swamp like the one pictured on the old cover of Haines’ Touched.

Book Review

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Cry Baby Creek Bridge: Mesmerizing, frightening fiction

Bridges Opening Photo

For a Labor Day getaway, I took a short trip to cross a bridge I needed to cross. Though my book A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South links seventeen bridges to literature and writers, I’d never crossed the Florida bridge from Niceville to Destin. I’d been to both Destin and Niceville, but the Mid-Bay Bridge across Choctawhatchee Bay, the quickest hurricane evacuation and commuter route, was never on my route.

Since the bridge is in my book, I needed to cross it. I had grandiose hopes for this 3.6-mile bridge, with its toll of about a buck a mile. It would whisk me, right along with famous writers, from the plot-stimulating beaches of Destin and beyond to Niceville, where writers like to live.

I envisioned breathtaking, sun filtered photo opportunities, but it rained and I had to shoot from the car through tinted windows. The bridge looks about like the Garcon Point Bridge across Escambia Bay which I can see from my neighborhood. The one difference is Mid-Bay Bridge takes me to glamorous, glitzy, posh Destin shopping areas — the Garcon Point Bridge takes me to Walmart.

Bridges captivate writers, it seems.  They offer vast opportunities for themes, plots, metaphors, and marvelous titles – The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Bridge to Terabithia, Bridges of Madison County. In fact, Ranker. com lists fifty good books with the word “bridge” in the title.

Old Cover

1994 Cover

The most fascinating fictonal bridge I’ve recently read about is the bridge over Cry Baby Creek in Carolyn Haines re-released novel Summer of the Redeemers. This book, part of her Jexville Chronicles, could easily be included in my book since all three novels are set in southeast Mississippi near the Pascagoula and Escatawpa Rivers. Though Summer of the Redeemers is set in Mississippi, the nearest Cry Baby Creek is in Saraland, Alabama, near Oak Grove Road and Kali Oka Road. Like other Cry Baby bridges and creeks in America, this one is steeped with the urban legend of the mother who drowns her baby when fleeing for her own life. This YouTube video shot at Cry Baby Creek in Alabama tells the story.

New cover

2022 Cover

Haines’ novel features 13-year-old Bekkah, whose entire world is Kali Oka Road and its residents. She knows every person, tree, house, barn, animal, and rut along the road. But this summer a religious sect moves onto the end of the road, just across Cry Baby Creek bridge. A horsewoman moves into an empty house and fills the barn with horses, which attract Bekkah. Headstrong, curious and outspoken, Bekkah has a way of getting herself in risky situations. Bekkah’s best friend Alice is the primary babysitter for her infant sister. It’s been ten years since the first baby died in Cry Baby Creek, and the reader fears these new residents at the end of Kali Oka Road will lead to more missing babies. Suspense, intrigue, surprises, and just about anything else a reader could want fill this hauntingly beautiful novel. Even though it was first released in 1994, it stands the test of time. Some pages are still too scary to turn.

CH Quote

Of course, this part of the country speaks to me since I’m from Pascagoula. Haines writes of the Pascagoula Indians and the Pascagoula River Swamp, just ten miles south of the fictional creek. The novel is set in 1963, the year nearby Mobile, Alabama, got its first McDonalds, enamored by both Bekkah and her fifteen-year-old brother Arly. Other Alabama references include the characters swimming in the Escatawpa River at the Highway 98 bridge where Alabama and Mississippi meet, and the white sands of Gulf Shores, as white as Bekkah’s grandmother’s hair.

A book of the South by a Southern writer reminiscent of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Harper Lee, this regional novel carries universal themes of nature, compassion, religion, justice, fairness, guilt, and change. Like the third book of the Jexville Chronicles, Judas Burning, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Summer of the Redeemers, though at times it was frightening, yet mesmerizing.  Now that I’ve read Book One and Three, I’ll bridge the gap and read book two, Touched, also recently re-released.

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