Monday, February 20, 2006

Larry Jackson

I have written often of my favorite barbeque restaurant, Leatha’s, in Hattiesburg.

It is one of the most unique restaurants on the planet. Not because the barbeque ribs are fall-of-the-bone tender, the sauce is sweet and inimitable, or the beef brisket is smoked to the core, but because of the people. So many times the human element is taken for granted in the restaurant business.

Leatha’s is a family-run restaurant. Mrs. Leatha is always there. Her daughters Bonnie, Carolyn, and Myrtis are there, too. They, along with dozens of grandchildren, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins are what make Leatha’s restaurant great.

They all work with one singular purpose: To serve the finest barbeque in the South. Many restaurants use the term ‘family” in their name. Leatha’s restaurant practices what it preaches.

That is why it is so hard to write today’s column. The family at Leatha’s has suffered a massive loss. Larry Jackson passed away last week.

If you had ever visited Leatha’s, you knew Larry. He was Mrs. Leatha’s youngest child. He greeted people when they walked in the door and sang to them at each table. He had done this for most of his 43 years.

Actually, Larry had grown into somewhat of a celebrity. Not only did he sing for those who visited the restaurant and at local talent shows, he was a regular guest on the nationally syndicated Steve and D.C. radio show.

Larry was my friend.

Larry was developmentally disabled. He was a special person, but I don’t mean “special” in the way that some use the term “special.” Larry was special because he touched so many lives and gave them joy.

One can tell a lot about a family by watching them interact when they think no one is looking. I remember sitting in Leatha’s one evening waiting for a carry-out order. Larry was having a disagreement with his two sisters Bonnie and Carolyn. The dispute was over one of his homemade CDs. Larry was insisting that there were three songs on the CD. The sisters maintained that there was only one. There was nothing special in the words they were using; it was the tone of the give and take. Even in disagreement, there was the deepest of love in the words.

I purchased the CD as I always did when Larry had something to sell. On the way home I popped it into the CD player. It was Larry singing one of his favorite songs, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (complete with the Vincent Price narration). It was the same song on the CD three times.

Larry Jackson was the most passionate human being I have ever known. His singing might have been off key now and then. He might have missed a lyric or a note, or both. But he was passionate about it. He gave 100% no matter what anyone thought and everyone within earshot couldn’t help but celebrate his passion. I learned a lot from Larry.

I imagine that some people asked Larry to sing to get a laugh at his expense. Ultimately, the joke was on them. Larry loved to sing. It was his passion. He didn’t care if you liked it or not.

There is a huge difference between making people laugh and making people happy. Comedians make people laugh. Larry Jackson made people happy.

Last year he was asked to sing the national anthem at an intra-fraternity football game at the University of Southern Mississippi. He invited me and I brought my camera. It was a proud moment for Larry. He was on the 50-yard line of M.M. Roberts stadium singing to all in attendance. I had planned to have the photo framed one day to present to Larry. I assumed there would be plenty of time. I was wrong.

Mrs. Leatha could have done what many mothers do in her situation and sent Larry to a home for the developmentally disabled. Not Leatha. She celebrated what God made Larry and put him to work sharing that blessing. When one celebrates what God has made instead of hiding or being embarrassed, they become truly blessed. Letha celebrated Larry and Larry became a celebrity.

Leatha did what Jesus would have done. In biblical times the marginalized and disadvantaged citizens were left outside of the city gates. One of the first things Jesus did when arriving in a town was to lift those people up and have them walk into the city with him. Larry certainly would have walked with Jesus, and he would have been singing all of the way.

Larry was my friend. I miss him already.

A scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation has been established in the name of Larry Jackson. I encourage everyone who feels the urge to give a little to honor Larry.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Screaming Yellow Zonkers II

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about one of my all-time favorite snack foods Screaming Yellow Zonkers.

Until then, I thought that Screaming Yellow Zonkers had been relinquished to the junk-food trash heap of history. I hadn’t seen them on supermarket shelves in years and had resigned myself to living a Zonker-free existence for the remainder of my days.

Then I came upon a magazine article that sang the praises of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. I Googled them immediately and found a company in Upstate New York that would ship them to me for $6 per box, plus shipping.

Six bucks, what a bargain, I thought. I hadn’t had a bite of one of the elusive butter and caramel coated popcorn snacks in 30 years. I ordered six boxes and planned to ration the allotment— only letting a few, extremely close friends try the product— to make sure that they lasted a long time. There was no guarantee that I would ever have the chance to eat a Screaming Yellow Zonker, ever again.

The column ran and the e-mails poured in.

I would have expected the correspondence to contain praise and accolades for doing the extensive research needed to track down such a hard-to-find foodstuff. Or maybe even a few queries as to where one might find a company that would send a box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. Not so.

Most of the e-mail responses included lines such as, “You idiot. I was at the Dollar Tree today and they had a shelf full of Screaming Yellow Zonkers.” Or, “Why would anyone pay a New York company $6 per box plus shipping when you can go to the Dollar Store and purchase them for…you guessed it… ONE DOLLAR!”

After scraping my ego off the floor, I traveled to a local dollar store. They were right. Sitting on the shelf, only a few blocks from my home and office, were boxes of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. As the man said in his song, “So close, but yet so far.”

My first thought was to get to work on another column notifying everyone that Screaming Yellow Zonkers are alive and well and sitting on the shelves of their local dollar store. Then I worried that there might be a run on the candy coated popcorn and held off.

I cleaned the shelves in one dollar store and bought half of the stock from another before I wrote this piece. I am now hoarding 42% of the Hattiesburg area’s Zonker supply.

Now that my home and office shelves are fully stocked with dozens of 8 oz. black boxes of Screaming Yellow Zonkers, and my stash is intact, I can admit that I have quickly become addicted to the butter-glazed snack, and am in the market for a twelve-step program to help me with my snack consumption problem.

During the week that all of the e-mails were pouring in I received a note from Allan Katz, a California man, who was the award-winning creator of the original box, ad campaign, posters, and marketing of Screaming Yellow Zonkers, the snack that The New Yorker magazine called one of its best bets. After leaving the boutique agency that did the Screaming Yellow Zonker work, Katz traveled to Hollywood and became a writer and producer on some of television’s best shows including Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, All in the Family, Cher, M*A*S*H, and Roseanne.

In addition to designing the humorous copy on the box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers, Katz led the crew that designed an elaborate circus poster that was available in 1970 to those who sent in $2.95.

Actually, 35 years ago I sent $2.95 to the manufacturers of Screaming Yellow Zonkers and the poster hung on my wall for a number of years. I was saddened to learn in the letter sent by Katz that one of the posters recently sold on EBay for $5,000.00. It seems that. I am either paying too much for popcorn, or not holding on to my collectibles as long as I should.

Nevertheless, I’ve got my Zonkers stored under lock and key and I plan to keep the dollar stores in business for the next few years.

Monday, February 06, 2006


How far will a man travel for a good piece of fried chicken?

The answer: 383.75 miles.

While attending a party in Atlanta last year, I was approached by numerous people on several separate occasions over the course of the evening. All asked one question: Have you been to Watershed? Some added …and have you eaten their fried chicken?

I had not been to the restaurant Watershed, although I was a fan of Chef Scott Peacock and his collaborative cookbook project with Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking. The fact that all of these people were separately talking about one thing, Watershed and its fried chicken, roused my curiosity.

I told my traveling companions that after the cooking demo on the following evening, we would travel East on Ponce De Leon Avenue into neighboring Decatur, Georgia, and eat this fried chicken that everyone was raving over.

After arriving at Watershed we learned two things: 1.) The famed chicken is only served on Tuesday nights. 2.) We better get there early because it sells out quickly.

It was Wednesday, we were 24 hours late, and though we enjoyed an excellent meal of contemporary Southern cuisine in a very modish atmosphere, we weren’t able to order the fried chicken everyone had been talking about.

The meal that evening was outstanding. I remember a butter bean hummus that was served with a warm homemade pita. Someone in our group— maybe me— ate trout, another ordered an organic pork chop with greens and the most upscale macaroni and cheese I had ever tasted, and another ate chicken— but not fried chicken.

For eleven months I have lusted after the fried chicken at Watershed. I have talked to countless friends on numerous occasions of the three-day process used to prepare the chicken. I have planned road trips and tried to organize business meetings in the Atlanta area, all for naught.

Last week I was in Atlanta on a Tuesday. The day had finally come. I called Watershed and asked the receptionist for the earliest reservation available. She gave me a table for three at 6:45 pm. “Will there be any chicken left at 6:45?” I asked.

“Probably,” she said. I crossed my fingers.

We arrived at 5:30 pm and asked to be seated early. After 383.75 miles, I didn’t want to risk missing out on the chicken, again. She saw the desperation in my eyes and complied.

We all ordered the fried chicken which is served with mashed potatoes, garlic green beans, and two buttermilk biscuits. As I looked around the restaurant everyone was eating fried chicken. The full menu is available on Tuesday nights, but no one seems to care. They, like us, came for fried chicken.

Every Sunday the chefs at Watershed begin preparing for Tuesday’s fried chicken night by marinating 50 birds in a saltwater brine. On Monday, the chicken is transferred from the brine into a buttermilk marinade where it sits for the next 24 hours. On Tuesday, after three days of brine and buttermilk foreplay, all of the cook tops are lined with cast iron skillets filled with lard, a little bit of butter, and a touch of bacon grease.

A half of a bird is served. Only 100 orders are prepared, when they’re gone, one must wait until the following Tuesday.

As we were waiting for the chicken to arrive, I asked my dining companions, “Can you remember the best mashed potatoes you have ever eaten?”

“I can,” I said. They were eaten on March 2nd, 2005 on my first visit to Watershed.

One would think that a mashed potato is a mashed potato is a mashed potato. Not so. Think about it. Have you ever eaten mashed potatoes that were so good that you remember exactly where and when you ate them?

The chicken arrived. Eleven months had passed since I first heard of the famous three-day fried chicken process at Watershed. The build up had been significant. The pre-billing was considerable. Expectations were high. So many times these situations are ripe for a major let down. Not so with the Watershed chicken.

Each piece was perfect. The meat was plump and juicy, the crust was light and crisp, just like my grandmother used to make.

Isn’t that the gold standard for everyone’s fried chicken— will it be as good as my grandmother’s?

I am not prepared to say that the Watershed chicken was better than my grandmothers, but it was at least as good. And seeing that she passed away 15 years ago, this is the closest I will ever get.

Was it worth traveling 383.75 miles? Absolutely.