Thursday, July 7, 2022

A Cheese Straw Society

Guests floating in by parachute. Galas in cotton gins. They party differently in the Delta

There’s a man — a legend, really — named Lewis Watson, who liked to jump out of airplanes.
So much so, that whenever he and his wife were invited to a party, the hostess knew to find a wide-open space outside
At the Greenville Country Club, ladies lunch on "The Duo," tomato aspic and homemade chicken salad with a side of fresh fruit drizzled with celery seed dressing. /Photo by Jared Burleson
At the Greenville Country Club, ladies lunch on “The Duo,” tomato aspic and homemade chicken salad with a side of fresh fruit drizzled with celery seed dressing. /Photo by Jared Burleson

to place their martinis. And sure enough, as guests mixed and mingled with cheese straws and glasses in hand, the Watsons would float down from the sky, landing squarely in front of their cocktails. The tousle-haired guests would raise their glasses, toast their audience and join the festivities as if they’d just walked in through the front door.
Julia Reed loves to tell this story, and she has millions more just like it. She has taken these stories all the way to Washington, D.C. and New York and New Orleans where she tells them to roaring crowds of New York Times writers, Vogue editors, screenwriters and socialites.
Gayden Metcalfe has a million stories of her own.
“We’re an eating, drinking, talking society,” she said. One of her closest friends told her once, “I had to move back to the Delta because I never heard a good story anywhere else.”
Reed and Metcalfe hail from Greenville, a hospitality-obsessed city that likes to claim more writers per square mile than any other in Mississippi. Tales of extravagant Delta hospitality have been retold in print since William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee instructed the world on the proper way to make a mint julep. Outsiders couldn’t believe the hyperbole, wondering out loud whether these lavish bashes were myths, little tales embellished for dinner party chatter.
But what’s to embellish? This is a place where the silver isn’t stored away long enough to tarnish. Many joke that a Delta girl will ponder over a Rorschach inkblot and say, “Now, that looks like Chantilly silver to me! Or maybe that’s Tiffany?” Whatever the pattern, a Delta hostess is never shy to pull out the silver.
Gayden Metcalfe says women are never shy to pull out the silver. She calls polishing silver "a southern lady's version of grief therapy." /Photo by Jared Burleson
Gayden Metcalfe says women are never shy to pull out the silver. She calls polishing silver “a southern lady’s version of grief therapy.” /Photo by Jared Burleson

“If you have it, why not use it?” Metcalfe says. She believes the more you use your silver, the less you have topolish it. Polishing silver is “a Southern lady’s version of grief therapy.”
Reed — author, magazine columnist, former New York Times food writer and daughter of former Mississippi Republican Party chief Clarke Reed — went on to New York to share these hilarious tales. She has compiled many of them into four books, all collections of essays detailing what she calls the “relentlessly over the top” ways Deltans celebrate. Metcalfe has remained in Greenville, but has shared her stories coast-to-coast by coauthoring a trilogy that lifts the “magnolia curtain” separating the Delta from the rest of the world.
Both have won national attention as chroniclers of this entertainment culture—this other side of the Mississippi Delta. Beyond the boarded-up boutiques and abandoned factories of Greenville, there is a whole different world that Reed, Metcalfe, and many others have attempted to reveal and explain.
A Special Place
It is a genteel society with an appreciation for the finer things in life. The Percy family’s parties were legend but Greenville’s love of society did not stop there. It is home to the first debutante club in the state, which for decades has presented young ladies to society at Christmastime at the country club. It is the birthplace of the Junior Auxiliary, home to no less than eight garden clubs and a thriving arts culture that has spawned noted authors, artists, sculptors and a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor. What other town in the Delta has a writer’s garden with plants culled from the seeds of the Percys’ own landscaping?
At Metcalfe's elegantly furnished home, Delta entertaining is on full display. /Photo by Jared Burleson
At Metcalfe’s elegantly furnished home, Delta entertaining is on full display. /Photo by Jared Burleson

You can’t understand this world until you experience it. One day spent riding around Greenville in Metcalfe’s sleek black station wagon provides at least a glimpse of the Delta joie de vivre.
When Metcalfe hears a car pull up the loose gravel drive, she’s waiting at the door to invite you inside the exquisite foyer of her ivy covered red brick home. She’s wearing a smart black dress, a strand of pearls, and antique gold coin earrings. Her bright white hair is swept up neatly and tied off with a thin black grosgrain ribbon. She smiles the Gayden smile and welcomes you inside.
You are greeted by a stuffed bobcat lounging on a chaise, and above, the hide of a grizzly bear hangs from the railing of the second-floor landing. Weaving through the white sofas of her sitting room, she leads her guests into the floral covered walls of the dining room.
Crystal goblets and silver mint julep cups are perfectly aligned in neat rows on the glossy mahogany table, and a crystal dish holds cinnamon pinwheel rolls. There is a tray set with china coffee cups on delicate saucers alongside a silver coffee urn. And atop a doily-lined silver stand is the snack that is never forgotten in the Delta-cheese straws. Forget the Queen City of the Delta. Greenville is the Cheese Straw Capital of the World.
“We have this horrible thing in the Episcopal church called ‘The Peace,’ where after the sermon you have to stand up and give the peace to everyone. Shake hands and say ‘Peace be with you, peace be with you.’ I just say, ‘Peace sit down,’” Metcalfe jokes. “My husband Harley leans over every time and says, ‘Who brought the cheese straws? This is like the ten minute break.’”
Merrill Alexander, national executive director of the Junior Auxiliary, which, naturally, is headquartered in Greenville. /Photo by Jared Burleson
Merrill Alexander, national executive director of the Junior Auxiliary, which, naturally, is headquartered in Greenville. /Photo by Jared Burleson

Over coffee, she rattles off a list of must-dos for this quick tour of Greenville. First, a visit to the Greenville Arts Council, a busy non-profit she founded with other faithful Greenvillians. It is housed in the E.E. Bass Cultural Arts Center, a restored middle and high school which is also home to the likes of Delta Center Stage, Delta Children’s Museum and a 1901 vintage Armitage Herschell carousel adored by generations of schoolchildren.
It hosts art exhibits, concerts, parties and other events, including a Southern Foodways Alliance traveling exhibit celebrating the life of legendary New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne, who hailed from Sunflower County.
“My husband told me I’m so involved that the only clubs I’m not in are Sam’s Club and Ku Klux Klan,” she jokes. She’s a member of the Greenville Garden Club, the oldest garden club in the state. “They say behind every man is a strong woman, but I say the Greenville Garden Club can stand on its own,” she said.
Enroute to the next stop, Metcalfe’s SUV glides past St. James Episcopal Church, where she is an active member and is seen in the pews every Sunday.
“Location, location, location,” she says, pointing to the red brick church. “When you die, you come out that door, cross the street, and process over here to the Greenville Cemetery. Afterwards, we all go through the other double doors and into the reception hall for a little food and drink.”
Metcalfe knows a thing or two about funerals. Her book, Being Dead Is No Excuse, is a sidesplitting guide to planning the perfect after-party when a relative reaches the afterlife. It includes anecdotes of a woman lying in state across her pristinely polished dining room table and a crop duster sprinkling a man’s cremated remains onto a cotton field. Naturally, she brings any guests to the cemetery, a place she calls “the best address in town.”
“Juuuuuust visiting,” she says with a grin through the open window to a friend taking a stroll through the rows of graves.
Next is lunch in the sunny, white-tiled dining room of the Greenville Country Club. Metcalfe and her posse enjoy panoramic views of the golf course and tennis courts while sipping sweet tea. They lunch on “The Duo,” tomato aspic and homemade chicken salad with a side of fresh fruit drizzled with celery seed dressing.
Delta weddings
She recounts the day her daughter was married, an event her friends still rave over years later.
Author Julia Reed believes in mixing "the high and the low." She once held a black tie wedding rehearsal dinner in an abandoned cotton gin complete with roast suckling pig. /Photo by Katie Williamson
Author Julia Reed believes in mixing “the high and the low.” She once held a black tie wedding rehearsal dinner in an abandoned cotton gin complete with roast suckling pig. /Photo by Katie Williamson

“Most girls in the Delta want to get married at 6 o’clock, so they can have a lot of food and a lot of drinks and a big party. And I’d always told her, you don’t have to get married to have a big party. We will be delighted to have a big party without you making this commitment,” she said. “But my daughter, little Gayden Bishop Metcalfe, said I don’t want to have just a wedding. I want to have a wedding day.”
The day began with a brunch, followed by the wedding that afternoon. The reception was held in the Metcalfes’ backyard, where caged birds were sprinkled throughout. The day ended 20 miles outside of town in Benoit with a black-tie affair at the Burrus House, colloquially dubbed the “Babydoll” House after the 1965 film was shot there.
“We went out there because she wanted all her European friends to see the cotton. We had drinks in the front yard and a seated dinner inside. Then we recessed to the back yard where we had the ‘jukin’ band from hell,’ but oh, did I dance with everybody,” she said.
Julia Reed has her own Delta wedding tale. For her second wedding, she held the rehearsal dinner in an abandoned cotton gin — “My mother took one look at the place and said, ‘Julia, you’ve lost your mind.’” Long banquet tables were lined with fried catfish, boudin, crawfish rémoulade—all nods to her new home in the Big Easy. Guests clad in black tie also feasted on a true Southern beast, a massive roast suckling pig.
“It was such a dramatic sight in the middle of the pitch-black Delta. It’s the classic thing we do—create something out of nothing. I just had all of these people from out of town and I wanted to show them where they were,” she said.
Reed preaches the philosophy of “the high and the low.” She loves this combination of black-tie elegance meets down-home cuisine. This mix of gritty reality and genteel fantasy is, in essence, what often defines Delta entertaining.
“There’s no point in trying to be pretentious. That’s not who we are,” Reed said. “My mom always said, ‘As long as you have food that tastes good, everyone’s happy.’” When entertaining in Greenville, Reed often picks up fried chicken from Fratesi’s Grocery and serves it alongside a steaming chafing dish of crabmeat Mornay.
For Delta ladies seeking to entertain in a special way, Lagniappe's one-stop specialty shop has shelves of china and Juliska pottery, among other items. /Photo by Jared Burleson
For Delta ladies seeking to entertain in a special way, Lagniappe’s one-stop specialty shop has shelves of china and Juliska pottery, among other items. /Photo by Jared Burleson

“[The rehearsal dinner] just reminded me of what it must’ve been like to be in the early days of the Delta when it really was the ‘most southern place on earth,’” she said. “It was a time when they thought, ‘We’re stuck with mosquitoes and snakes, so we might as well drink cane and eat fine food.”
And that’s exactly what they do. In the Delta, if you want to be entertained, you have to make the fun yourself. It’s been this way since rich landowners traveled to this fertile floodplain and started clearing cotton plantations out of the rugged swamps and forests. There was always a push for a good party during the long period between planting and picking season.
Those months saw a party every night, sometimes lasting for days. They were dazzling, Gatsby-esque affairs where the rhythm of the band was in tune with the chatter, and the beat of the drum made ripples in a drink that was poured by the bartender’s very heavy hand.
“I remember when I was a kid, I’d literally get up in a pear tree, and my friend Tee would pull a plank out of the fence and we’d just watch the parties. I had a great bird’s eye view of all the parties at my neighbor’s house,” she said.
Through her books, her latest being But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!, Reed has attempted to recreate this “mad-cap” entertainment culture she grew up in. But there’s much, much more to the story—and it lies in the true spirit and hospitality of a Deltan.
“I brought the British Ambassador down to the Delta once, and he is still kind of bowled over by the sort of generosity and spirit of these parties,” she said. It truly is a different world—a place unlike any other. It’s a world that requires an invitation. But here in the Delta, it’s easier to score one than you may think.
“It’s such a funky place that’s attracted all these types of people—from river rats to journalists to politicians,” Reed said. “That’s what I’ve always loved. It’s such a melting pot. And in the Delta, there ain’t no standards.”
– Story by Sarah Bracey Penn, University of Mississippi Meek School of Journalism and New Media magazine, The Land of Plenty
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