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Fried Catfish, Hush Puppies, Lifelong Friendships: A Taste of the Ole South in NYC

MSPicnicPicnicers
Photos by Genevieve Rafter Keddy

There’ll be heavily accented cries of “How y’all doin’?” this Saturday in New York’s Central Park as the 36th annual Mississippi Picnic gets underway at noon June 13 (until 6 p.m.). It’ll have something for everyone — and you don’t have to be from Mississippi or even Southern to enjoy the tastes, hospitality, heritage, and sounds of Mississippi. The location is the midway strip adjacent to Sheep Meadow.

Enter at West 72nd Street and Central Park West or 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue and follow the signage.

ElvisIsInTheParkPosterThe theme is “Elvis in the Park,” a tribute to 80 years of the King of rock ‘n’ roll, as well as other music that’s made Mississippi known worldwide as “the birthplace of America’s music.”

It’ll feel a lot like home with farm-raised catfish and all the trimmings, scrumptious caramel cake, sweet tea — and rock ‘n’ roll and lots of good ole country music.

“The New York Mississippi Picnic in Central Park is a great way for Mississippians working in the New York area, as well as native New Yorkers, to enjoy first-hand a taste of Mississippi food and the hospitality our state is known for,” says lead sponsor Mississippi Development Authority executive director Glenn McCullough. “The Picnic has showcased our state’s vibrant culture in New York for the past 35 years, and we look forward to celebrating this authentic tradition again this year.”

Rachel McPherson, picnic co-founder, says, “This event is a way for those in the New York area to connect with Mississippi and learn about what Mississippians are most proud of — our food, music, culture, and people. For natives in the area, it’s an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and to those things familiar from home.”

MSPicnicCatfishHushPuppiesFormer special assistant and events coordinator at the MDA and state coordinator for the picnic since 1992, Alexis Brown (Madison) says, “New York moves at a slightly faster pace than we do. Each year has provided different opportunities and challenges, and many rewards. One of the greatest is seeing how native New Yorkers, who drop onto the grounds out of curiosity, have the opportunity to connect with our Southern hospitality; enjoy Simmons farm-raised catfish — now sold in New York supermarkets; and listen to our Mississippi rhythm and blues artists.

“We’ve found that New York City and Mississippi have things in common,” she continues. “The summer heat and humidity.”

“From the beginning,” says Picnic co-founder Rachel McPherson, “our goal was to change perceptions New Yorkers had (about Mississippi) from the ’60s. Our invites say, ‘Y’all come!’ and y’all means all y’all! It’s always been inclusive.”

Attendees will enjoy Southern fried catfish and hush puppies from Simmons Catfish of Yazoo City. Mississippi chain McAlister’s Deli will serve its famous sweet tea [and a sugar-free option]. Pirouline Cookies of Madison, Sarabella’s Sauces of Jackson, and Sugaree Bakery of New Albany will treat picnickers to delicious desserts.

MSPicincChefRCharboneauAcclaimed chef and cookbook author author Regina Charboneau (Regina’s Table at Twin Oaks and A Collection of Seasonal Menus & Recipes from Regina’s Kitchen) and a chef de cuisine for the American Queen riverboat, returns this year to do food demonstrations and tastings. With husband Doug, they restored and own Natchez Inn Twin Oaks (circa 1832).

Picnickers, many alumni of Mississippi colleges and universities, come from throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. They give away give away caps, shirts, novelties, and shoot group photos of alumni. Several have pre-Picnic gatherings and use the event as a recruiting tool.

In the past, there’ve been attendees from across the South, Australia, Brazil, and Norway.

MsPicnicEntertainmentTrioMusical performers will be Elvis tribute artist Brandon Bennett, the New York City Slickers (founded by husband and wife Faser Hardin of Macon and Annie Chadwick of Jackson), Jimmie Rodgers tribute artist Britt Gully (Meridian), musical theater performer and 2014 Ole Miss grad Caroline Lyell of Pascagoula, and longtime regular, New York-based blues artist Jon Paris.

A Best Elvis Look-a-Like Contest will be held. Picnickers are encouraged to take on the King’s style and swivel hips, showcase sideburns, slick back their hair, and wear a white leisure suit or showcase their take on the King’s style.

MSPicnicHattiesburgThe 2015 poster will be available with artist Brent Farrar in attendance to autograph.

T-shirts, aprons, state arts, crafts, and jewelry will be displayed. Mississippi cities promote tourism with fun giveaways and guide books and retirement opportunities. Mississippi artists and authors book space to showcase, sign, and sell copies of their works. Past items have included rocking chairs, and eyeglasses with frames made from Mississippi River driftwood.

The Mississippi Cultural Heritage booth, one of the Picnic’s most popular, will be hung with posters and emblazoned with quotes from state historical figures famous natives. There’ll be free “green” totes with an image of Tennessee Williams, pamphlets about the Civil War (even the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library; in Mississippi, of all places), and a free collectable from Vicksburg’s National Military Park, “Art of Commemoration,” a mix of history and images of the monuments in the park. The MDA’s Sarah McCullough will tout tourist destinations.

Back in the day, attendees brought fancy tablecloths, fine linen and china, silver and crystal candelabra more at home in an antebellum mansion. Picnickers brought a bale of cotton, silk magnolia blossoms, a two-foot Lady Liberty made from grits.

MSPicnicFoundersThe Picnic has grown immensely since its founding. The seed was planted when Vicki and Ron Carter of Tupelo and Ellisville, respectively, connected with Ole Miss friends McPherson of Monticello, the late Kay McDuffie of Nettleton, and Diane Wiltshire of McComb soon after they moved to New York in 1977.

Vicki says, “My first apartment and every connection I made came through Mississippi. And if someone came to town, we just had to get together. Kay knew me since childhood piano competitions. Rachel was a flight attendant. New York was her base. We became roommates. Like homesick folks crying in our mint juleps and eating Southern fried chicken, we talked about friends and home. Soon we discovered an unbelievably large contingent of Mississippians living in or near New York. Mac Nelson (from Pascagoula and now of Laurel) came up with the idea.”

“There’s nothing better to bring Southerners together than down-home music and Southern cooking,” explains Ron. “neither of which was easy to find in the ’70s and ’80s in New York. The picnic started simply — everyone just brought something. We didn’t have social media, but word-of-mouth spread. Over 500 showed up. It was potluck and camaraderie! A y’all come ‘n bring something down home for all to share”old-fashioned dinner on the ground.

A friend of the Carters was actor Brandt Edwards of Byhalia (on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning musical A Chorus Line and Tony-winning musical 42nd Street), who not only came to the picnics, but brought a lot of theater people.

SMcCulloughHeritageThe second year, Rachel was able to get Governor William Winter and state universities involved. “Having Mayor Koch as a fan,” relates McPherson, “enabled us to fry catfish in Central Park.” The Picnic is the only such event the New York Department of Parks allows in Central Park.

“From the beginning,” says McPherson, “our goal was to change perceptions New Yorkers had from the ’60s. It brings together old friends and college chums from throughout the region. Our mission is to support and promote
Mississippi artists, authors, musicians, and chefs. But the Picnic’s also a revival, a celebration. Our invites say, ‘Y’all come!’ and y’all means all y’all! It’s always been inclusive.”

The not-for-profit Mississippi Picnic is incorporated as The New York Mississippi Society. Now, it’s just throw a blanket or a colorful oilcloth on the ground and grab some catfish. Back in the day, attendees brought fancy tablecloths, fine linen and china, silver and crystal candelabra more at home in an ante-bellum mansion. In various years, picnickers brought a bale of cotton, silk magnolia blossoms, a two-foot Lady Liberty made from grits and another made from watermelon flesh. There was fried chicken, red beans and rice, pimento cheese [which is isn’t sold in Northeast supermarkets], homemade pecan and Mississippi Mud pies.

In 1979, the catfish farmers got involved and have been a staple since. At first, the catfish dinner was free, but word spread and half of Manhattan suddenly was in line for the fixin’s. The dinner is now $15.

Governor Winter once jogged into the grounds for TV news cameras to promote the goings-on and helped plant a magnolia tree. Some other shared memories include founders (Rep. Sonny) Montgomery and New York Mayor Ed Koch in the Watermelon Seed Spitting competition.

More than 5,000 individuals and groups are invited. It’s not unusual to run out of catfish. Over time, the Picnic evolved into a showcase of Mississippi products and business opportunities. Past meetings with site selection consultants enticed companies such as Caterpillar, Nissan, and Toyota to the state.

MSPicnicKenAkinsChefDuCuisineSetup begins at 6:30 a.m. Workers, with picnic society administrator McPherson supervising from a master plan, erect over 20 open-air tents, a stage and the area where catfish is fried by “chef du cuisine” Ken Akins of Southhaven, who’s been on the job for 29 years. Most everything he needs, he trucks up.

The list includes 500 lbs. of catfish, flash frozen and placed in dry ice at Simmons Catfish, which continues its longtime largesse of donating the fish and 120 lbs. of hush puppies. French fries and coleslaw are prepared in New York.

Akins’ makeshift kitchen gets going at 10 a.m. and consists of a cornmeal station and six vats for frying. “Each vat holds 35 pounds of vegetable oil with the properties of peanut oil,” he noted, “but without the trans fat.” Frying time is eight minutes. “We average 1,500 one-half-pound servings. “Eight ounces is a lot of meat, but I’ve never seen leftovers.”

MSPicnicSugareeCaramelCakesSugaree Bakery owner Mary Jennifer Russell says, “Two years ago, we brought up 50 caramel cakes. They were devoured so quickly we didn’t know what hit us. Last year, we had 75 cakes, which were devoured in a couple of hours.”

Mississippi governors (save one) going back to William Winter have attended, along with such politicians as Representative Gregg Harper, the late Representative Sonny Montgomery, Senator Thad Cochran, and former Sen. Trent Lott.

Notable natives, such as Good Morning, America host Robin Roberts of Pass Christian, Eli Manning, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith (Holly Springs), Mississippi’s first Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley of Brandon; and the New York Times and food critic and best-selling cookbook author Craig Claiborne of Sunflower have been guests.

Alpha Pearl Williams (Philadelphia) has been attending the Picnic “since the beginning of time. I come back every year to reminisce with friends. And I love the food!”

Governor Winter, honored at the 2013 picnic, once jogged into the grounds for TV news cameras to promote the goings-on and helped plant a magnolia tree. Some other shared memories include founders include Montgomery and former New York Mayor Ed Koch and Mississippians Hodding Carter III and Larry Speakes, press secretaries in the Carter and Reagan administrations, in the Watermelon Seed Spitting competition.

MSPicnicTupeloConvVisitBureauAnnual themes have saluted famed natives, such as Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee Williams, James Earl Jones, Elvis Presley, Eudora Welty, Morgan Freeman, Willie Morris; Oscar-nominated best-selling author Kathryn Stockett of The Help, and Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. Last year, Jimmy Weatherly, former Ole Miss quarterback and Songwriter Hall of Fame member, was among those cited.

Alpha Pearl Williams of Philadelphia has been attending the Picnic “since the beginning of time. I come back every year to reminisce with friends. And I love the food!”

John Sherman and Ginger Johnson of Clarksdale were first timers last year. “Attending the picnic was on my bucket list,” he said. “Friends have been, so we heard about it. And it was an opportunity to visit New York. I came all the way up to New York to get great catfish.”

Bern Keating, a travel writer who divided his time between homes in New York and Greenville said, “The thing I like most about Mississippi is all the gorgeous women. And the thing I like most about New York is all the gorgeous women and all that piping hot catfish and hush puppies!”

In addition to those contributors mentioned, Mississippi Picnic in Central Park sponsors include Mississippi Economic Development Council, Mississippi Tourism Association, Butler Snow LLP, De Beukelaer Corporation, Coopwood Communications/Delta Magazine, One Mississippi, and Visit Hattiesburg.

For information on The New York Mississippi Society, visit their website.

MSPicnicSchoolSpirit


ellis-nassourEllis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline.

All photos courtesy Genevieve Rafter Keddy

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