Tuesday, October 14, 2008

May 2008 Memphis to St. Louis

Chapter 1 Natchez, Mississippi

May 15, 2008
4 am

It was raining torrential buckets when we set out for Baton Rouge, the type of storm in movies with a South Seas typhoon. We had a breakfast of cafe au lait & beignets at Coffee Call on College Drive near LSU while we waited for the rain to clear up so we could see to drive.

This picture was taken on the day Robert purchased this car in July 2006.

Fields are flooded off Hwy 190 from Port Allen to Oppelousas in places that have not been known to flood. We noticed some new oil wells since our last trip out that way do to oil going to over $130 a barrel.

The plan was to pick up mama and be in Natchez for lunch. Robert & I have a diffeence of opinion regarding car trips. He prefers to begin after dark, drive all night, arrive when the attraction opens, spend a full day riding the rides. I tried that when we went to Schlitterbahn Water Park in New Braunsfel, Texas. We left at 10pm, drove 12 hours, were the first customers of the day. I felt abysmal from lack of sleep although we did make the most of our time. It is inadvisable to drive all night in an area where you haven't driven before. This was a pleasure trip; getting there is half the fun. It is better to see the sights, possibly photograph a few because were were driving the scenic route.

It was sunny by the time we got to the farm. From there we drove up Hwy 71 to Pineville, then Hwy 28 east to Natchez. I brought some recorded books & music on cd for the trip barrowed from the parish library, cranking open Walkter Cronkite's memoirs when we were near Jeana, where the road heads east to Vidalia. Cronkite discussed his career - Kennedy's assassination, LBJ's presidency, Vietnam, the space program. We enjoyed it but that was the last thing we agreed on as far as listening went for the duration of the trip.

Crossing the riverwe continued through the south side of Natchez to Hwy 61, passing by the turnoff for Longwood, the octagonal antebellum home that was never completed, one of dozens of historic Natchez homes available for tours.

Longwood was the 100 acre country estate of a wealthy doctor & cotton farmer who owned 3 plantations named Dr. Mudd. Construction began in 1857. The basement was finnished & the family lived there while the rest of the house was constructed but it was never finished due to outbreak of the Civil War. Materials for it were paid for in advance but captured by embargo. The doctor died of pneumonia & a broken heart in 1863. His widow was in residence until 1897. The house remained in the family until 1957 when relatives sold it plus 10 acres to the Natchez Garden Club.

It is not as bad as it sounds, living in the basement. The family had 8 children. The basement had large well appointed rooms radiating around a central atrium with dining room, kitchen, library, 6 bedrooms. The basement alone was the size of what we could call a mansion in these days of the typical suburban 3 bedroom 2000 square foot ranch home. Although no pictures were supposed to be allowed I was able to photograph the house plans using no flash. You can tell it too.

The house has a roof so the interior has been preserved. The first 3 floors of the 6 were in various states of partial completion. The attic still has packing crates for a piano stamped addressed to Longwood with the manufacturer's return address. The 3rd floor had alcoves around the perimeter intended for life-sized marble statues of Greek gods. I felt this was a bit over the top for what I would want in a home place but other than that I was inspired to try to think of ways how we could tweak our little home. Other than the concept of hanging draperies at ceiling level instead of the standard 3 inches above the window wasn't able to think of anything else so just bought a lottery ticket and hoped for the best on a new ponderosa someday.

These burnt orange/red curtains were 4 panels that originally gathered at the top. I sewed 2 panels together on each side, lining them with white material so the sun won't fade them out.

I cut a 5th panel into 4 pieces, pleating each piece horizontally 5 times to make the header 8 inches tall. I added that to the top of each panel so the draperies now would hang long enough to go to the ceiling level.

I then sewed vertical tubes 3 inches apart in the header, reinforcing it with cardboard tubes from gift wrap rolls to give it body. The draperies were clipped to the rod with cafe clips.

Here is the picture of some curtains where I got the idea for that. This is how my curtains turned out but you can't tell it in the photo because of the scarf valence I installed over it.

I cut one scarf so that it was just the length to go to the corners, hemmed the panel so it was the same width as the scarf, running that across the front to join the scarf on the other side. On the other scarf I also added a piece in the middle so it would go up to the center, creating a poof in the middle.

Here is a picture of some scarf valances that illustrate what I was trying to do with the ones that I made. You can see what I am talking about better with this illustration due to the use of two colors of material.

This job required installation of a double curtain rod at the top to hold the red curtains with opaque panels in back of it. In addition I installed brass c clips at the corners for the scarf. There is a piece that looks like a lyre in the middle for the poof. There are silver/ mother of pearl finials on the decorative rod as well as matching silver/ pearl tie backs where the scarf is gathered 3 feet from the floor.

Although these curtains look bizarre a word of explanation: it all started with a shower curtain at the house we moved from.

The first thing I thought when I saw the bathroom in that house was that the former tenants must have been drinkers who liked to shop for paint and accessores when they were inebriated. That bathroom was painted a pepto bismal pink on one wall, mint green on another, had beige ceramic tiles in the shower with black light switch covers & a black door knob. The shower curtain went with all those colors, yanking the room together. Normally one would say 'pulling the room together' but that is too mild a term for this color pallette.

Later I found some sheets that matched the shower curtain. I used a set of those sheets to make a quilt, the flat sheet for the back of this quilt, cutting up the fitted sheet to use for the color square in the star on the quilt. It is a 19th century pattern called 'Blackford's Beauty".

I was so happy there for over 7 years, might be there still if not for a neighbor who coveted the little rental shotgun house. He bugged the landlord incessantly for over 4 years into selling it to him. The new owner gave us little notice; he wanted to gut the place & reconfiture it, planned on renting it out for twice what we were paying.

We had no down payment but found an adorable home that had been repossessed & fixed up by the bank for resale in the next town. To save money I used curtains from the old house when we moved to the new one in August 2004.

These curtains in the guest bedroom were patched together with contrasting sheets that I had on hand which went with the left over material from the quilt project. 4 years later these draperies were faded from the sun. The curtain rods weren't holding up so well. It was time for a change.
It was noon when we pulled into the parking lot of Mammy's Cupboard restaurant at the city limits on Highway 61. This circa 1940 restaurant is in a building that resembles a giant Aunt Jemimah. It is open Tuesdays through Saturdays for lunch, 11 am to 2 pm. The management accepts cash/personal checks only. When it is open there is not a parking spot available; when it is closed there is nary a vehicle in sight. Desserts for $5, plate lunches for $9 are the house specialty. There are two dining rooms, a kitchen & pantry. The first room is round with red walls/white trim. The second is square with black & white tile floors. The kitchen is up a douple of steps with an open door. There is a bathroom at either end of the back room, with a man's hat or a woman's bonnet on the dooor to designate the correct one. Diners are greeted by a sign asking one to wait for seating. After a time one of the cooks looks out at the line of customers, points with a knife, asks how many in the party, says 'Y'all sit over there". The Thursday special was a plate lunch; pork roast, green beans with bacon, tossed salad, wild rice caserole & herbed cornbread. Both this & the blueberry lemonade on the menu were delicious. Other entrees were soup, salad, or a sandwich with potato salad. The sandwiches were generous, made with bread sliced an inch thick. Dessert is either pie or cake. All the pies have a meringue that is 4 inches tall; coconut, chocolate & lemon. All the cakes have cream cheese frosting with pecan bits & are similarly lofty; carrot, hummingbird, red velvet, Italian creme cake. The first time I was ever here I had to tell them the origin of hummingbird cake. They wre unaware that it is a recipe from Hummingbird Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans.

In 1993 I had the opportunity to chat with Bertha Hillensbeck, the owner of Hummingbird. Her father had originally built it in 1947. It originally had 50 rooms. In 1990 after a $500,000 renovation to get it up to code it had 13 rooms, half of which were occupied by the original residents from the 1940's.

Bertha remarried a man who also had children from a previous marriage. Together they had 12 kids. The only indication at first glance that it had been removated is that before the work was done the blinking neon sign outside read 'Hot l pen 4 hours'. After rennovation it read 'Hotel open 24 hours'.

The first floor had a restaurant with buffet salad bar. It was a popular spot with folks who had been to soirees. For some inexplicable reason people in New Orleans seem to like to eat breakfast before going home after being out all night. They really do love to stay out all night there. Movie stars wishing to keep a low profile stayed there. My favorite memory of this place was a sign above the pay phone which read 'No talking to invisible people".

Hummingbird cake is a recipe of a chef at this restauarant. It is like carrot cake but has bananas & pineapple in it. It has a cream cheese frosting, is garnished with pecans. It is 3 layers that have been split into 6 after baking when the frosting is applied.

Recipe 350 degrees 25 minutes
You will need three 8 inch greased & floured cake pans

3 c flour
1 c sugar
1 tsp each soda, cinnamon, salt, vanilla extract
1 c oil
1 c pecans for batter + 1 c pecans for frosting
3 beaten eggs
2 c mashed bananas
1 eight oz can crushed pineapple for batter + 1 small can drained pineapple for frosting

After cake is cooked & cooled split into 6 layers. I like to put the pineapple bits between the layers when frosted and garnish whe frosted cake with pecan halves. The Mammy's Cupboard recipe calls for 1 c coconut as well.

1 stick butter
1 pkg cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
1 box powdered sugar

You can add meringue powder if frosting is too soft. Meringue powder is also good for preventing the frosting from separating if this cake is on display at room temperature for any length of time such as it would be at a reception or a good old fashioned visitation after a funeral. In case you are wondering what is meringue powder it is powdered egg white. Where you can find it places that carry supplies for creating wedding cakes, such as the wedding aisle in crafts departments at Walmart or a Hobby Lobby store. The cake is best served chilled a day after preparation.

We took the Natchez Trace to Port Gibson, stopping to see historic Mount Locust, a traveler's inn on the Trace circa 1780. It was also a plantation. The house is two rooms separated by a breezeway and has a loft upstairs. Most of the time there are tour guides on hand since this is also a state park.

We drove with the top down since the weather was now a balmy 78 degrees, listening to New Orleans piano players Tom McDermott & Philip Melancon. Tom's March 2008 cd, Creole Nocturne with coronet player Connie Jones features ragtime. Philip was playing Nat King Cole.The others did not share my enthusiasm for these selections.

The river at Vicksburg flooded the town a fortnight ago, adversely affecting the surrounding farming community. We saw fields of heretofore healthy crops, produce already dying, field still flooded, sun burning the roots. It was very sad to see a pasture where 3 horses huddled in knee deeep water, captive behind barbed wire. You could tell their feet were sore, standing on 3 legs, holding one foot out of the water for some relief. A farm implement store posted a hand lettered notice warning 'customers' not to make repairs on the premises or to even think of asking the management to install parts not purchased here. The air was redolent with cottonwood tree pollen.

Our friend Nada Constant pointed out a calendar on Harrah's casino web site that indicated dates where rooms were at discount when she learned we were planning a vacation. We found a fine room with two queen beds for only $35. Normally it was $250.00 according to the sign posted on the back of the door. Harrah's has several properties in Robinsonville near the other Tunica casinos.

Harrah's Grand is two hotels, the Terrace & the Verandah. The casino is in a separte building from the hotels. Before checking into our hotel we dropped by the Hollywood casino to admire movie memorabelia in the lobby such as the Batmobile & a model of the Titanic.

Supper was delightful in the newly opened Paula Dean buffet. It had big dining rooms plus several dining porches & a verandah to accomodate smokers. Even though we were inside the casino it felt like a gracious home, as if we were all outside the building. Food was fantastic. There were even barbequed oysters on the half shell. The cook went out of her way to make Robert a banana split. Creamed corn was folded into the baked cheese grtits, a delicious innovation. The creme brule was a disappointment however, resembling a pudding with carmelized topping and not the traditional coooked egg custard.

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