“I cannot forget from where it is that I come from
Cannot forget the people who love me
Well, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I wanna be”
— John Mellencamp
I’m a small town guy. I have good friends who live in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and large metropolitan areas all over the country. They thrive in those environments. I get it. I love the access that big cities afford— so much at your fingertips— and for a guy who eats, sleeps, and breathes restaurants, big cities are in my professional wheelhouse.
My friend, Mac McAnally, wrote a song in the late 1980s as an apology to people in big cities because everyone in Belmont MS— the small town in which he grew up— thought they would be killed if they traveled to a big city. It was a tongue-in-cheek, humorous take, but there’s a tiny ring of truth to it. I have never been afraid of big cities. My grandparents lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for the first 10 years of my life, and I loved visiting them. I have an apartment in New Orleans and spend enough time there to consider myself a part-time New Orleanian. Though, in the end, I’m a small-town guy.
I live in an area of South Mississippi called the Pine Belt. We were founded on pine timber and the railroad system. I am the sixth generation of my family to inhabit this area. This is home. This is where my roots are. This is where my family is. This is where my friends are. I made the decision 36 years ago to plant my stake in the middle of Midtown Hattiesburg— the neighborhood in which I spent my childhood— and start doing business by owning and operating restaurants.
I made the decision that, as long as I could travel and go to other places, this would be the place I want to raise my family, do business, and grow old.
There’s so many benefits and bonuses to living in Hattiesburg MS. I feel as if I know half the town. Sure, we have world class medical facilities two universities and great quality of life. But there’s so much more.
I was in a New York publishers office years ago working on the second book of a three-book deal. We were in a boardroom on the Upper West Side meeting about how the next book was to be marketed. An assistant marketing director shuffled into the meeting late. He wasn’t happy to be there. He was less than enthused that his company had signed an author from the Deep South, and he didn’t believe that any book I had to offer was worth their efforts or his time. He was over it before he even sat down. He shuffled some of the papers in front of him, thumbed through my bio and sarcastically grunted in an affected Southern accent, “Hattiesburg, Miss-uh-sip-ee? What’s there to do in Ol’ Hattiesburg Mississippi?”
I immediately wanted to start reeling off a laundry list of reasons why I love my city— the main reason being we typically don’t have to deal with rude jerks like him— but answered truthfully and just told him, “There’s plenty to do. Actually, a few weeks ago I walked two blocks from my home and saw Itzhak Perlman play with our local symphony orchestra. It was his second time to play here. The year before that Yo-Yo Ma played with that same orchestra. You probably don’t know it, but it’s the only university orchestra with which Plácido Domingo has ever performed.” I reeled off a couple of more cultural and historical aspects of my hometown and my home state and he sunk in his chair and looked disgusted for the rest of the meeting.
I could have talked about all the musicians I have seen here over the years, and the writers I have met here. But that’s not really the reason why I love this town. Sure, it’s a nice bonus and benefit, but there are other aspects of my hometown that appeal to me so much more.
I love our little Christmas parade. It’s nothing special. There are no giant helium filled balloons, or national newscasters, or massive marching bands stomping down the street. But there is a strong sense of community. I love small town Christmas parade spirit. Last year our Christmas parade was held on the same day as the Kiwanis Club pancake breakfast. Another small town event that I love. They are both straight out of central casting.
A sense of community gives one a sense of place and a sense of belonging. I belong here. I could live in other places, and probably places that are more beautiful and scenic. I could wake up and look at the mountains in the morning or a sunrise coming over the horizon at the beach. Those things are great. But what of my friends? What of my family? What of my roots? What of my businesses?
For years I heard older people tout the need for good medical services in the location where they live. That never mattered much to me. However, I am 61 years old and blessed to live in a community with two hospitals and a major clinic with world class medical facilities. I’m sure my friends in New York and Chicago will read that last sentence and scoff, but that would be contempt prior to investigation. It’s true.
The proximity is great, too. I am 90 minutes northeast of New Orleans (one of the great food cities in the world), one hour due north of the Gulf of Mexico, and a couple of hours away from the sugar sand beaches of the Florida Panhandle.
It’s the little things that make up a community. If I were asked to give a list of reasons why I love living and Hattiesburg, Mississippi it wouldn’t be the typical Chamber of Commerce pitch as to livability, air quality, water quality, and public services. On the top of the list would be the people. But there would also be things such as the Coney Island Sandwich Shop on Main Street. They’re celebrating their 100th year this year, all under the leadership of the same Greek immigrant family that opened it in 1923. A great grandfather, grandfather, father, and son have been the direct line in that lunch counter. A run of 100 years in a restaurant is almost unheard of, yet to have it only run by four men who are direct descendants is truly rare air.
Yesterday I attended Hattiesburg’s 40th annual Memorial Day Service. There’s a park in downtown Hattiesburg dedicated to the soldiers we have lost in every war since World War I. The ceremony lasts around 90 minutes and is some of the most meaningful minutes I spend all year. It concludes with a 21 gun salute and the playing of taps. Yesterday Taps was played— as it has been every year— by Howell Purvis, an 85-year old veteran who has bugled it at over 500 funerals. Yesterday was his final performance A bell tolled as they read the list of local soldiers lost. I listened while looking at the four marble columns at the front of the park with 173 names of the local soldiers who have been killed in action.
Those are 173 men and women who never got to see what our small town has become. We’ll never get to see the contributions they might have made, the families they would have raised, and the lives they would have impacted. Yesterday, they impacted my life once again, and I said a short prayer that a 174th name is never added to the list.
Call it small town pride, call me naïve, call me whatever you want, just call me at home in this place when the day is done.
2 Eggplant, medium size
1 /4 cup Bacon grease (or canola oil)
1 cup Onion, small dice
2 cups Red bell pepper, small dice
1 cup Tomatoes, diced, peeled and seeded
1 /2 cup Celery, small dice
1 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 tsp Dried basil
1 /2 tsp Dried oregano
2 cups Mushroom Béchamel Sauce (or Cream of Mushroom Soup)
2 cups Corn flake crumbs
1 /4 cup Butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place eggplant on baking sheet and bake 20 minutes. Rotate and continue baking 20 minutes more. Remove and allow to cool.
Using a paring knife peel the skin from the eggplant. Cut eggplant into two-inch cubes.
Place the bacon grease in a large skillet over high heat. When oil is very hot add eggplant to brown. Add onion, bell pepper, tomatoes, celery, garlic, basil and oregano. Cook for five to six minutes. Stir in Mushroom Béchamel Sauce and pour into two-quart baking dish.
Bake uncovered 40 minutes. Combine the corn flake crumbs and melted butter. Spread evenly over top of casserole and bake 10 minutes more. Remove casserole from oven and serve. Yield: 10 – 12 servings
Mushroom Béchamel Sauce
1 Tbl Olive oil, light
1 /2 cup Onion, minced
1 /4 cup Shallot, minced
1 /4 cup Celery, minced
2 tsp Salt
1 tsp Garlic, granulated
1 /2 tsp Thyme, dry
10 oz Mushrooms, cleaned, sliced (4 cups)
3 cups Chicken broth
1 /2 cup Butter
3 /4 cup Flour
1 cup Whipping cream
Heat oil in a three-quart saucepot over low heat. Add onions, shallots, celery, and salt. Cook vegetables until tender. Add mushrooms and increase heat to medium. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken broth, garlic and thyme. Bring back to a simmer and cook 10 more minutes.
In a separate skillet, make a light-blonde roux by melting butter and stirring in flour. Add to simmering broth mixture. Cook three to four minutes and add cream. Freezes well. Yield: two quarts.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)