Thursday, August 2, 2012

Neshoba County Fair: Mississippi's Giant Houseparty

For weeks, people around the office have been talking about the Neshoba County Fair, an hour-and-a-half northeast of Jackson in Philadelphia, MS. (Mississippi also boasts its own Madison, Cleveland, Little Rock, and Paris).

But the Neshoba County Fair is not your typical county fair. Sure, it's got a ferris wheel and prize-winning farm animals and abnormally large watermelons. It's also got deep-fried Oreos. But what sets it apart is that people actually live on the fairgrounds for the week of the festivities. And not in any old houses. There are these cabins that they live in--about 600 on the property--that get passed down from parent to child. They stay in the family line, and if you want one of them, you better marry in. They go for a lot of money but, get this, they are only occupied for the single week every year during which the fair takes place. People take a lot of pride in them, especially if your cabin is in the "Founder's Square" (the original square where the fair took place, where people started building them). They also take great care to decorate and personalize the (outsides) of the cabins, as you'll see below. Entire extended families come out for the year--even if they live nowhere near Mississippi anymore--and people cram as many as 25 people into the beds that litter the upper floor(s) of their cabins.

The other thing that sets the Neshoba County Fair apart is that it is, for lack of a better phrase, a haven of Republican politics [it's been called the Woodstock of Republicans]. Of the ten politicians who spoke, one was a democrat. The Secretary of State said, "I want to encourage ya'll to go out and vote for the Romney of your choice." And, since it's not a local-election year, nearly every other politician who spoke echoed that sentiment, touting Romney while flouting Obama. One said, "We want to make Washington [D.C.] like Mississippi." Perhaps he meant emulating the fact that Mississippi leads the country in obesity, diabetes and HIV, not to mention poverty...

Well, back to pictures. Can't let too much politics get into my blog (although there's plenty to go around in Mississippi!)

The prize-winning watermelon in the "children's section" whatever that means. Not sure how much this one weighed, but you can see that it's pretty large. Passed one later on that weighed in at 160 pounds, I believe.

Good to know that "postering" is still a verb post-college. This almost rivals the most number of posters I've ever seen on a lamppost, but certain popular weeks on campus have even the Neshoba County Fair politician-lineup beat in that regard.

Classic county fair

Not-so-classic county fair. Some of the 600+ cabins that are occupied during (and only during) the week of the fair. As I mentioned above, people go through great pains to individualize their cabins, which get passed down through family lines.  One person I met is the grandson of a man who was in the lumber-business in Philadelphia in the early years of the fair, so naturally he built a cabin. Still in the family!
Well, Dan, you've finally made it. There is a better picture of Dan (also a better picture of the horse-racing), but I figured one that included both of them was the best option. Plus, it's a classic look. 

Just a fun thing we saw: a small child sitting atop a rusted truck.

More classic-fair: small children showing prize animals. This boy couldn't have been more than 6, and looked about 6. 

Prize-winning canned things. I probably don't want to know all the kinds of things they're preserving in those Mason jars.

Dan and I took a walk around the fairgrounds, and we're pretty confident that we saw all 600 cabins (we didn't venture into the land of the 1200+ RV campers that set up for the week). Among the best things we saw was this little boy trying to sell rocks. I'm not sure why his parents didn't tell him that selling rocks was not going to be a successful business venture, but Dan played along well and bought two for the shockingly-low price of $.25. 

I'll spare you pictures of all the Confederate flags hung up on a number of cabins, but here's the  official Neshoba County Fair flag. "Mississippi's Giant Houseparty".

And, of course, the horse-racing. (Chariot-racing?). After the horse-racing, there's something called a "chair race". That means that everyone grabs their folding lawn chairs and races around the track with them to get the best seats for the concert that follows the race. Running with chairs seems only slightly less dangerous than running with scissors or standing on wiggly chairs

Monday, July 23, 2012

Touring the (Jewish) Mississippi Delta

Today was a field-trip day--one that included zero visits to libraries, zero microfilm machines, and zero century-old city directories. We drove up to the Mississippi Delta, to Oxford (home of Ole Miss, and William Faulkner), Clarksdale (home of the blues), and Greenwood (where most of The Help was filmed, since Jackson "didn't look Southern enough").

Oxford, in addition to being the home of both Ole Miss and William Faulkner, is conveniently also the home of one of the other summer interns, so she was able to navigate for us. Our first stop was Square Books, and independent bookstore in town. I was finally able to find a Mississippi postcard (Jackson doesn't have them) to send to DD at camp, completing my trilogy of LA-OK-MS postcards sent to her. We also made stops at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture where we met with Jimmy Thomas and had quite an interesting conversation about definitions of the South (Confederacy? Where kudzu grows? Where they say ya'll? Slave states? Segregation? etc.). Then we headed over to meet the folks at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and heard about their youth summer program, which sounds like a really great way to spread race education. We ate lunch at Big Bad Breakfast, where I had an opportunity to say Shehecheyanu (a prayer you say the first time you eat/wear/do something new): I had grits for the first time!

And then we continued on to Clarksdale, MS

This is the old building of Temple Beth Israel. It's no longer functioning as a synagogue--we think it might house a church, though there were no signs on the property at all. It was also surprising that none of the decorative architecture had Jewish stars or other Jewish symbols.

Despite the closing of the Temple, the community (and its descendants) have made a point of making sure that the Jewish cemetery stays in good shape. Compared to some of the other Jewish cemeteries I've seen this summer, it's pretty big, and it's in beautiful condition. Many of the graves even had stones on them. 

Of course, ice cream. No summer field trip is complete without ice cream. We had heard about Hugh Balthrop (Chicago native!) and his backyard Sweet Magnolia ice cream, and decided we had to try some. Unfortunately, the one place in Clarksdale that serves it was going to close before our arrival--so with a little pre-arranging, we got him to leave us some cups of delicious, homemade gelato at the Chamber of Commerce building in Clarksdale, where we would pick it up. Favorites; coffee, mint chocolate chip, and coconut (!)--though he's working on perfecting a fig ice cream!
 And on to Greenwood, MS:
This is the exterior of Congregation Ahavath Rayim, a formerly-Orthodox but now sort-of-Traditional-but-really-probably-Conservative, still operating synagogue in Greenwood. At the synagogue we met Gail Goldberg, who grew up in the synagogue, and she told us about its history and its current status.

The wall of the synagogue that housed the Ark, which holds the Torah, had gotten some pretty bad water damage, so the synagogue is doing some repair-work so the Torahs (and the building) don't get destroyed.

But the stained-glass is still intact and as beautiful as ever. There are currently about 10 Jews living in Greenwood, and they hold services once a month and get a minyan each time. On Rosh Hashanah, they run out of the 25 Machzors they own and the 25 that a family from Memphis brings down. 

 After a tour of Greenwood, in which we saw the two Jewish stores that are still in operation (one is Goldberg's, a shoe store run by Gail and her husband Mike, and this year marks the store's 90th anniversary) as well as many of the houses used in the movie The Help, we had a lovely dinner at Delta Bistro before heading back to Jackson. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

This Ain't my First Rodeo (actually it was)

A few weeks ago, Diana and I heard that the Black Rodeo would be coming to Jackson. We both made a mental note of it, and when there was an ad for it in the paper a few days ago, we decided that we would go to the Black Rodeo Parade that preceded it. This morning we headed downtown for the parade which was pretty much exactly like the Medgar Evars Homecoming Parade--trucks honking, politicians/local organizations driving and throwing candy, and tens of people on horseback. The parade was only an hour--nothing like the long, drawn out, float-filled parades both of us are used to from home. 

Horses don't just wear shoes, apparently--sometimes they have "socks". This was the most colorful set, but there was also a man with America-themed horse decorations, and a woman whose horse had hot pink reins and socks, among many others. 

After the parade ended, we looked at each other and realized that $22-day-of-rodeo tickets were absolutely worth it: when else were we going to see a rodeo, much less the Black Rodeo? Neither of us had ever been to a rodeo before, and we had absolutely no idea what to expect. We figured it out pretty quickly. Below are lots of pictures, and one video from the 10th annual "Baddest Show on Dirt":

Among the first "events" was bull-roping. You know, classic cowboy throwing a lasso around the neck of an angry, speeding bull. Those things are about 10 feet long and weight about 2000 pounds. 

One of the cowboys (not this one, I don't think) was from Ponca City, OK, the first city  whose Jewish history I wrote about for my work at the Institute.

Another event included lassoing a young bull, hopping off your horse, running over to the bull and tying its legs together--the bull had to stay down for some amount of time, or it didn't count (like wrestling). The guy in this picture was so fast. He was tying his lasso around the bull's legs before I even realized he'd lassoed it!

The rodeo is really not a place for squeamish people--or animal rights folk. To get a better tying position after he'd lassoed the bull, this cowboy literally picked up the bull (imagine how strong that cowboy is!) and placed him down on his side.

When the cowboys needed a break, they brought out this group of synchronized riders (I forget the name of the "company"). It was nice...but not as exciting as the rodeo events. 

After successfully wrangling a bull, this cowboy pulled out some breakdance moves in celebration.

One of the scariest events to watch was this, in which two cowboys on horseback and a charging bull are released from the pen at the same time. The goal of the cowboys is to sandwich the bull so one of the cowboys can slide off his horse onto the bull and wrangle it to the ground. They're judged on how quickly they succeed (if at all).

Don't worry, this guy didn't get gored. A fraction of a second after this photo, he had the bull's horns on the ground in a hold.

Only one of the competing pairs succeeded in this event: one cowboy lassos the bull around the neck, while the other has to lasso one of its feet. 

A couple of events were for cowgirls. This one is called barrel racing. There are three barrels set up in the arena, and the cowgirls' mission is to drive their horses around each barrel and run back to the gate, completing the sequence as quickly as she can. The fastest cowgirl was a girl (I think she's 14 years old? Maybe 15?) who completed the sequence in 13.720 (or was it 13.702?) seconds. She was from Muskogee, OK--the first town Diana wrote about for the Institute.

Of course, no rodeo is complete without bull-riding. Some of these guys were really impressive in their abilities to stay on a 200-pound animal while it jerked and bucked and twisted trying to literally send them flying through the air. Only once person almost got gored...

Immediately after being thrown off, the cowboys have to stand up and run, so the bulls don't charge them. One of the cowboys jumped clear over the fence.
Two things I did today that were not rodeo-related:

Diana had heard about Choctaw Books, a used bookstore a little north of downtown. We drove around and found it, and I was absolutely unprepared for what greeted me when I walked in, a sample of which is visible in this picture: books everywhere. Piled in the aisles, stacked on top rows of books on shelves, in file cabinets, on chairs, covering desks, flowing into doorways. Mom and dad be warned: if we don't stop buying more books, this is what our house will turn into. I also found a package of Oreos in a file cabinet. I won't tell you how old they were, I'll just say that the logo was very different from the logo today--and that there were still cookies in the package. 

The other non-rodeo thing I did today that was noteworthy was go out to dinner with the president of the Princeton Alumni Association of Jackson and her daughter, a junior at Rice University. Earlier in the summer I'd contacted her, because I'd heard that Princeton alum always love meeting current students who are visiting their cities. She immediately offered to take me out for a meal at some point over the summer, and tonight was when we finally worked it out. We went to a Japanese and Thai place called Fusion and who should I see when we walked in but Stuart, my boss at the Institute! Jackson is a small, small place.

We're going back to Oklahoma a week from tomorrow (Lawton, Oklahoma City, and Guthrie), so there'll be another post then, if not sooner (get it? Sooner?)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

New Orleans: A Weekend in Pictures

Diana and I have been talking since the beginning of the summer about heading down to New Orleans at some point. We'd been told that Amtrak tickets were cheap--about $20 each way--but when we checked on Tuesday, they were $50 a piece in each direction. On Wednesday we found out that one of the Education Fellows from the office was planning to drive down this weekend, and she agreed to take us with. Then began the work of finding a place to stay. Hostels were always an option, but we wanted to go more the route of CouchSurfing. So I emailed a bunch of Princeton New Orleans alumni to no avail (everyone was out of town/moving/having in-laws over); then I remembered that a few people from high school went to Tulane. Turns out a couple stayed in New Orleans for the summer, and one offered to let the three of us (our friend Jo from the office came with, too) crash at her place in Uptown. It was about a mile north of the St. Charles Streetcar, which took us everywhere we wanted to go (or close enough).

We got to New Orleans a couple hours before Charlotte (who's place we stayed at) got off work, so we spent a couple hours wandering up and down Magazine St. In front of the hostel where we snagged a (very bad) map of the city, we found a cut-off branch of plantains sitting in the street. There were three perfectly ripe ones, which we ate right then and there, and then a whole bundle of still-green ones, which we carried with us the rest of the afternoon and brought back with us to Jackson. We got some funny looks walking around with it, but one woman stopped us and gave us some great ideas for how to eat them! 
Also on Magazine St. This is just on the porch of a private home. 

One of the first things we saw was this wall o' taps. Who knew one restaurant had so many kinds of beer!
We headed back to Charlotte's place to drop our stuff off, cool down, and figure out the evening. I had contacted the rabbi of Anshe Sfard, the Orthodox synagogue within New Orleans proper, earlier in the day to find out if they had Friday night services. The answer was no, but it came with an invitation to Shabbat dinner, which I accepted happily. Though I went into the summer knowing that my Shabbat experiences would be very different from what I'm used to, I'd feel weird not doing anything Shabbat-y at all. So I headed over there and had dinner with the Rabbi and Rebbetzin, and two Israeli girls roadtrip-ing from Connecticut to California and back.

After dinner, I went to meet up with Diana and Jo at Tipitina's, a bar/jazz club near the river that was having a good New Orleans brass band and later a jazz band. My plans got interfered with a bit by my brother's friend, Jesse, who lives in New Orleans, who insisted on picking me up to drive me there rather than have me walk alone. (Thanks, Jesse!)

On Saturday we headed out to the French Quarter, infamously the home of Bourbon St--which is every bit as ridiculous as what you'd imagine. But before we began our wandering, we got breakfast at a place called Nosh, where I got sweet potato pancakes (so good). 

The following are pictures from the French Quarter:
This kind of intricate lacy ironwork decoration is a staple of classic New Orleans architecture.  

Mardi Gras is a huge part of New Orleans culture, even not during Mardi Gras. Every tourist shop had  Mardi Gras beads, and half the trees and telephone wires in the city were draped with beads people had thrown in the air (during the parade, I assume). I've got some pictures of very inappropriate ones, but figured those shouldn't go on the blog...

This is in the French Market, an outdoor flea/art/produce  market in the French Quarter.  Airship Isabella had a stall where they were making some of their "steampunk leather and accessories" on the spot. One of the guys showed me how to dye and stamp the leather. Another showed me his leather wristband (pictured), which has a phone holder and keyboard for his phone, which hooks up to the bluetooth he had attached to his ear (with a hand-made leather cover, of course).

Jackson Square Park, named, of course, for Andrew Jackson. I'm pretty sure this is what Disney's logo is based off of.  Behind the park is a cathedral, next to which stands the Cabildo, once the center of government in New Orleans, and the site of the ceremonies associated with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

From Jackson Square Park, the three of us split off into different directions to go exploring on our own. I walked along the River, and came across a placard for the Woldenberg Riverwalk Park (the same Woldenberg of Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life)--and later a Holocaust Memorial funded by the Goldring family.
In any case, there's a free ferry that runs from Canal St. across the Mississippi River to Algiers Point. I took the ferry across and then back, and this is a shot from the boat. The River is not that wide there!

During my wanderings I heard some nice loud music coming from a few blocks away, and followed the sound until I found this brass band playing on a street corner in front of a Foot Locker. They were great, and I stopped to listen for a while before heading out for some more exploring. 

There were a lot of good doors, but I didn't want to flood this post with pictures of doors (when I put up albums later, there will be plenty of doors). This was one of my favorites. From the French Quarter. 

On my way back to meeting Diana and Jo at our designated meet-up, I passed an art gallery that  had easels and canvases everywhere, including all the way up to the ceiling and stacked on the floor. Turns out it was the gallery of Adrian Fulton, a helicopter mechanic in Lafeyette, LA (originally from Philadelphia) who has three art galleries in the New Orleans area that he uses as refuge from his "day job" of engineering. Only upon looking at his website just now did I find out that Fulton was one of the artists invited by former First Lady Laura Bush to the White House a few Christmases ago--an ornament he designed was one of the decorations on the tree in the Blue Room of the White House.
While I was in his studio/gallery, he asked if I was of legal drinking age. He looked disappointed when I said no, and then pointed to the wine he usually passed out to visitors. Looks like I'll just have to go back to New Orleans after September! 

While waiting in the park, Diana saw a woman carrying a Hebrew workbook sit down on a bench. Naturally, I went over to talk to her. Turns out she's also living in Jackson for the summer (and went to college a couple blocks from my high school!), so we chatted for a while and ended with an email exchange and an open offer for Hebrew help.

Then it was time for a snack. Since we were a block away from the famous, 24-hour Cafe Du Monde, we couldn't not go. So we went. We got an order of beignets (basically, fried dough with powdered sugar on top) to split between the three of us and they were delicious! But we were still off in search of dinner we went. We'd gotten a recommendation and followed through on it--it was yummy, but fancier than we thought, and smaller portions than we'd expected given the prices. The wandering continued, with Frenchman Street (lots of live music) the eventual destination.
On our way, we passed this building with shiny red  glass preventing anyone from looking in. Strip club, we're pretty sure.

The walk to Frenchman St. was long, so we took the streetcar that ran along the river. Just like in San Francisco, streetcars are an actual mode of transportation used not only by tourists. 

We'd gotten a couple suggestions for venues to check out, but had to stop at a street party we heard from blocks away. We weren't really sure what it was--flash mob? Dance party? Organized?--because it didn't look like everyone knew each other, yet at the same time there were lots of people with umbrellas and parasols who knew to bring them. 
And there was a strange beast-head (?) built of tin with neon lights dangling down with a shopping cart as its base structure. The boombox providing the music was coming from somewhere inside the structure.
Then we went to a couple of other clubs and saw some great live music! I couldn't go into many of the clubs, but there were still a bunch of goods ones that are 18+. When we got to The Maison, the FauxBarrio Billionaires, a band Diana had seen in New Orleans a few months ago, were playing. I'm not sure exactly what I would call their music, but it's got some jazz and blues, maybe some klezmer, some soul--and a washboard. We had to run out in the middle to say hi to our boss Stuart and his wife, who were also in New Orleans this weekend and had just walked by. Upon Jesse's suggestion, I went to the second floor of the Blue Nile, where a band whose name I never knew was playing. The lead singer was a man whose sultry, classic-Blues voice was one both Diana and I thought belonged to a woman. They were so good they almost had me up and dancing--and I don't dance!

We caught a cab home, and I have never been more scared of somebody else's driving (except perhaps one time in Hungary). Imagine a combination of start-and-stop gridlocked traffic with 80 mph tailgating. Now imagine worse. We got back to Charlotte's safely, surprisingly, and quickly.

This morning we went out in the direction of the Tulane and Loyola campuses in search of breakfast. Luckily, the place we'd been planning on was closed ("for summer vacation"), and we wandered into a place called Chill Out Cafe, which is "Breakfast & Asian Fusion". That means it's a Thai restaurant that realized it could get a much bigger draw from college students if it added classic American breakfast foods (with a southern twist--there was a shrimp omelette option).

Then we split up again for our last few hours. I decided to see if the Touro Synagogue (one of three reform temples in New Orleans proper; the first synagogue outside the original 13 colonies, and the sixth oldest in the country) was open. It wasn't, so instead I wandered through the Garden District, in awe at the size of the single-family homes I saw lining the streets. By this point, I was literally dripping with sweat--apparently, it only hit about 93 degrees, but the humidity made it feel much worse. I think I probably had 5 liters of water just in the couple hours I was out.

One of the places I wandered into was Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. What distinguishes these old New Orleans cemeteries from most is that the tombs are above-ground (because of the water). 

This tomb stood out, because it didn't have a big above-ground mausoleum.
Like I said before, Mardi Gras decorations remain visible year-round, draped on telephone wires and trees. 

This chicken-cage truck is actually from the drive to New Orleans. We had to peel our eyes away from the Bayou and the (former) longest bridge in the world (the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway) to take a look at the truck driving next to us. 
Coincidentally, the ride home included a stop at Kosher Cajun, where I bought--what else--chicken.