Monday, March 30, 2009

St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is a paradox. It’s an annual feast day set in the middle of a season in which people are supposed to be fasting.

During my childhood in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, St. Patrick’s Day was nothing more than a small mention in my elementary school classroom and the opportunity to pinch someone if they weren’t wearing green. No parades, no green beverages, no cabbage and corned beef— it was just another early spring day.

In 1982 I was living in Jackson and witnessed Jackson’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade. Restaurateur/concert promoter/arts promoter Malcolm White gathered a few friends, loaded them into the beds of pickup trucks, and made an impromptu trek around downtown Jackson.

I don’t know how many people were at that inaugural event, but it didn’t seem like many. It looked like a rag-tag group of fun-seekers who had— at the spur of the moment— loaded into pick-up trucks and driven around Jackson. I didn’t give it a second thought.

If I had to guess, I’d say that there might have been a couple of hundred people at the first parade, at best. One person who was definitely there was Jill Conner Browne. On a lark, she dressed as a Sweet Potato Queen. Today, almost three-million copies of seven books— two of which were number one New York Times bestsellers— multiple television appearances and book signings, 5,768 SPQ Wannabe chapter groups in 22 countries, and over $300,000.00 raised for the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital later, Jill Conner Browne is the undisputed Queen of Mississippi.

To put things in perspective, 70,000 visitors will visit Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo during the 12 months of 2009. On March 21st— in one single day— over 100,000 people will attend Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade in downtown Jackson. The Sweet Potato Queen has surpassed the King of Rock and Roll. Browne is a one-woman tourism commission.

Sweet Potato Queen wannabes will travel from all over the world to attend this year’s parade. Chapter representatives will be in attendance from Germany, France, and Italy. In the Who’s-Traveled-Farthest category— a group of 11 Sweet Potato Queen Wannabes are flying in from Indonesia with the sole purpose of attending the parade (and, of course, having a blast).

In one of the parade’s most notable happenings this year, a couple from Sarasota, FL will get married on the Sweet Potato Queen’s float, during the parade, in front of the judges’ stand. I am told they are shooting for the largest group of bridesmaids in the Guinness Book of World Records. They will most certainly grab the record for the most diverse and outlandishly dressed group of attendants in the history of matrimony

Malcolm gave the parade its start, Jill Conner Browne gave it its heart, and people from all over the world have a positive opinion of Mississippi thanks to them. Most importantly, over $300,000.00 has been raised to help the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital which is home to the state’s only children’s cancer clinic, it’s only cystic fibrosis program, and it’s only epilepsy center.

St. Patrick’s Day, a paradox? Maybe. A whole lot of fun? Absolutely. And a great Mississippi tradition, thanks to Malcolm White and Jill Conner Browne.

My Jill’s Sweet Potatoes

4 cups Sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled and mashed
3 cups Sugar
4 Eggs, beaten
1 cup Heavy cream
3 sticks Butter, divided, softened
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Nutmeg
1 cup Rice Krispies
1 cup Pecans, chopped fine
1 cup Walnuts, chopped fine
1 cup Brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 13 x 9 casserole dish. Combine hot sweet potatoes, sugar, eggs, cream, 1 1/2 sticks of the butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl; mix thoroughly. Add sweet potato mixture to greased casserole dish.

Combine Rice Krispies, pecans, walnuts and remaining 1 1/2 sticks of softened butter and brown sugar into a bowl. Mix until crumbly. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture.

Bake 40-45 minutes or until center is hot. Yield:10-12 servings

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