CARTHAGE, Miss.– We traveled the Natchez Trace until the gas gauge told us the car needed a fill. We took highway 16 east through Wiggins to the outskirts of Carthage, where the highway broadens to four lanes along a bustling nest of merchant-marts and small shopping malls and stop lights. We picked a likely spot, a mid-size convenience store and gasoline station called, aptly, “The Junction.” We were dead center in a web of roadways, the intersection of highways 16 (east-west), 35 (north-south), 25 (southwest-northeast) and 429 (northwest).
Highway 429, all 40 or 50 miles of it, seems part of a proliferation of short-haul state highways in Mississippi, most of them beautifully maintained; 429 is the shortest among those that intersect at Carthage (Pop. 5,075), which is six miles northeast of Wiggins (pop. 4,300), and is likely under the care and feeding of at least one beneficent state legislator in a district moderately populated and well-traveled.
It’s important for people to move among and through these towns on good roads, long-haul or short-haul.
Highway 429 starts at Carthage and heads northwest 25 miles to Thomastown, Bolalusha (10 miles) and Zemuly (3 miles); then it takes a jog west three miles on highway 14 to Newport, then north five miles, ending at Sallis.
Why the bother for a little 45-mile highway connecting five falling down hamlets? (Only Thomastown, pop. 200, and Sallis, pop. 134, are large enough to register populations on our Rand McNally.) Because the little highway is crucial to the larger network, one that completes a transportation web for at least 10,000 residents, some of them likely related to, or patrons of, the legislators who serve the district. All those roads, big and little, bring the hum and bustle of traffic through Carthage, and it’s likely that a lot of them stop at The Junction.
This “convenience store” stretches the experience of ambling into any typical kwik-mart. There are the rows of familiar snacks, quick-foods, candies, small tools, travel supplies and essentials; the surprise came in the special local food options – three kinds (strengths) of sweet tea, two large pots (barrels) of boiled peanuts (one “hot-spice”), and a line of machines called “F’Real”, for making one’s own milk shakes with such flavors as “cake batter,” “red velvet,” “cookies ‘n’ cream,” and more.
This quick-stop had a full kitchen with three cooks in white coat and hat, all working furiously, and a delivery man trying desperately to keep up with the sacks of orders flying along the counter. The menu was that of a full-service restaurant but speckled with southern specialties: collard greens and turnip greens, okra, turnips, peppers sweet and hot, catfish, pork, oysters, shrimp and the list went on. Rebecca ordered us a large shrimp po’boy, pressed (a bit like panini) with special sauce and extra potato chips (homemade). The wait, agonizing, was worth it. The chips were crisp, piping hot, perfectly salted, bursting of earth and potato; the bread, homemade, thick, warm, heavy with an abundance of fat shrimp lightly breaded, a light spread of something cabbage and pickle-based, spicy sauce oozing into the bread and onto our fingers, marvelous, just this side of thrilling – from a convenience store?
We now understand. In the Deep South the love and patronage of authentic, savory food (full-flavored) is boundless, essential in its heritage, a custom, a ritual, a devotion that binds families and entire communities, treasured recipes holding out the lineage and kinship of generations and even whole regions; food is a footing of southern culture. This abiding countenance has earned the region low marks among the nation’s food police, but high marks from those with a passion for scent, texture and flavor, a kind of deep aromatic ecstasy that comes only and especially through infusions of fabulous, home-grown grease, the frying, baking, broiling or long-smoking that loves fat – lard, butter, chicken, duck or bacon, among others. All in moderation, of course. The Deep South respects moderation – in moderation.
Now: Seconds? Thirds?