CATFISH, GRITS, BISCUITS AND GRAVY, FRIED CHICKEN, AND TORNADOES

Post #33:  CATFISH, GRITS, BISCUITS & GRAVY, FRIED CHICKEN, AND TORNADOES – Day 158, October 9, 2014

We are in the deep south – if I didn’t know it any other way, I would know it every time I look at a restaurant menu – it is signature-south. Most of the menu items are fried. Everything can be ordered smothered in gravy. Every restaurant features catfish for dinner. Grits for breakfast. A side of biscuits covered with gravy at any meal. Big portions.

Paul requested an order of sausage biscuits with gravy for breakfast:

They say it's good to eat a hearty breakfast....

They say it’s good to eat a hearty breakfast….

Everything tastes irresistibly good.  We up North turn up our noses at catfish, presumably because catfish are bottom-feeders and somewhat ugly-looking fish – but it is a light, flakey white fish, much like flounder, which are also bottom feeders and somewhat ugly-looking fish. Catfish is really good, especially when it is grilled or baked with lemon-pepper as they sometimes do it down here. However, most of the catfish is served deep-fried. In addition, the health benefits of catfish in the southern diet are often overwhelmed by the health detriments of most of the other signature-south items in the southern diet, as well as the large size of the portions. The unfortunate result is that Mississippi has the highest obesity rate in the country, and the southern states as a group have a disproportionately high level of obesity. But the food sure is good.

After weeks without rain, we finally had a major storm last Thursday night, starting around midnight. Wind, rain, near-continuous lightning flashes.  Around 2:00 AM, anyone who was asleep was awoken by a loud and prolonged siren – a tornado warning. Thinking it’s no big deal and with no real understanding of the implications, we rolled over and went back to sleep when the siren finally stopped. However, the threat became real to us the next day shortly after we arrived at a small marina in the small town of Smithville, Mississippi, just 18 miles away. We learned that, just three years ago, the owner of the marina along with 15 other residents of Smithville were killed in a tornado that virtually wiped out the town. The son of the deceased owner now runs the marina – the empty foundation of his father’s house adjacent to the marina is a sober reminder of the power of nature. The EF5 tornado (the most powerful category) passed within 100 yards of the marina, leaving only foundations in its path; miraculously, the marina was unharmed. Later in the day, we visited a hardware store in town and learned more – the store was new, as the building that had stood since the turn of the century had been leveled. Stories abounded. As the tornado approached, the owner and employees of the store took refuge in an old bank vault adjacent to the store which they used for storage. All survived. That night, we went to the local diner (the only one in town). More harrowing stories.  From a written story on the menu of the diner:

“Bobby and Melanie Edwards [owners of the diner] had been home for an afternoon break from work when the weather turned ominous. When alerts showed Smithville in the tornado’s path, the Edwards went into the basement of their church a couple of miles from their home. Bobby called the diner on the phone. ‘Shut off the gas and get into the cooler’ Bobby recalls urging waitress Brandy Holloway over the phone minutes before the EF-5 rumbled through.  The waitress said ‘You don’t understand. We have customers here’. Bobby said ‘You don’t understand. It’s going to be here in 10 minutes’. Holloway did as she was told. That made 12 more survivors.”

The diner was gone. The cooler with its mix of 12 employees and customers still stood. Bobby and Melanie rebuilt. Others weren’t so lucky. A drive through the small town revealed empty foundation after empty foundation where homes and businesses once stood.

Here are a couple of images:

This is a photo of the actual tornado, taken by a resident moments before ducking into a tornado shelter. The clerk at the hardware store showed us this and many other pictures she had

This is a photo of the actual tornado, taken by a resident moments before ducking into a tornado shelter. The clerk at the hardware store showed us this and many other pictures she had of the devastation.

The new Mel's Diner, rebuilt after being leveled by the tornado. The only restaurant in town, it serves as a de facto community center/gathering place as well

The new Mel’s Diner, rebuilt after being leveled by the tornado. The only restaurant in town, it serves as an informal community center/gathering place for residence of the small town.

From now on, if we hear a tornado siren, you can be sure we will pay attention.

Of course, much of the story of our trip is the story of the people that we meet. Everyone has their own story to tell.  I’ve told the story of some of the boaters and fellow loopers whom we’ve met.  Here are some pictures of some local people we’ve met recently in Mississippi:

This is Dave and his homemade houseboat. Dave is the guy who drove us to Tupelo to visit Elvis's birthplace & museum.  Dave and his wife are from Wisconsin - he built the boat, then decided to take it down the inland rivers to Mobile. He had never piloted a boat like that before and had never been in a lock. Down the Mississippi, up the Ohio, down the Tennessee, then down the Tenn-Tom they went. They stopped overnight in Fulton, Mississippi a year and a half ago and never left. They live on the boat, she works at the local Community College, and he drives a long-haul tractor trailer

This is Dave and his homemade houseboat. Dave is the guy who drove us to Tupelo to visit Elvis’s birthplace & museum. He and his wife are from Wisconsin – they built this boat together to live on, then decided to take it down the inland rivers and move to Mobile for a change in lifestyle. He had never piloted a large boat before and had never been in a lock. Down the Mississippi, up the Ohio, down the Tennessee, then down the Tenn-Tom Waterway they went. Fortunately, the weather and water levels were favorable for them. They stopped overnight in Fulton, Mississippi a year and a half ago and never left. They live on the boat;  she works at the local Community College, and he drives a long-haul tractor trailer. Very nice people.

This is Patty and her home, docked at the Smithville Marina.  Patty got divorced, then became sick of maintaining her single family house,  "especially mowing the grass - I don't ever want to mow grass again". So her friend Scott, who owns the marina, told her "I have just the place for you". So she has lived on this boat since April, and intends to stay there indefinitely. She has set up her lawn patio furniture on the dock next to the shore, where it serves as a gathering place each evening for the few people who also live in the small marina and friends who occasionally stop by.

This is Patty and her home, docked at the Smithville Marina. Patty got divorced, then became sick of maintaining her single family house, “especially mowing the grass – I don’t ever want to mow grass again”. So her friend Scott, who now owns the marina since his father was killed in the tornado, told her “I have just the place for you”. So she has lived on this boat since April, and intends to stay there indefinitely. She has set up her patio furniture on the dock next to the shore, where it serves as a gathering place each evening for the few people who also live in the small marina and friends who occasionally stop by.

 

This is John, standing next to his boat in Smithville.  John has lived on the boat at the marina for 15 years. "I seldom take the boat out", said John. "Maybe once a year, if that".  It looked like it had been much longer than that since the boat had moved....

This is John, standing next to his boat in Smithville. John has lived on the boat at the marina for 15 years. “I seldom take the boat out”, said John. “Maybe once a year, if that”. It looked like it had been much longer than that since this boat had moved….

These are two local fisherman who come down to the marina whenever they can to fish off the dock where the Joint Adventure was tied up. The pressure was on - their church was having a fundraiser later that day and was selling fish dinners for $10/plate - they had to catch the fish for the dinners, many of which had already been sold. I'm not sure if they were up to the task or not, but they sure were fun to talk with -

This is Ned and Al, two local fisherman who come down to the marina whenever they can to fish off the dock where the Joint Adventure was tied up. The pressure was on – their church was having a fundraiser later that day and was selling fish dinners for $10/plate – they had volunteered to provide the fish for the dinners, many of which had already been pre-sold. I’m not sure if they were up to the task or not, but they sure were fun to talk with –

 

Emily, the clerk at the hardware store and the daughter of Bobby and Melanie Edwards (owners of the store) and her Mom Melanie told us many stories about the tornado, which struck when she was 22. After hearing about our trip, she very much wanted to see our boat, so we took her on a tour of the Joint Adventure

This is Emily, the clerk at the hardware store and the daughter of the owners of the store.  She and her Mom told us many stories about the tornado, which struck when Emily was 22, and shared many pictures of the tornado with us.  After hearing about our trip, Emily very much wanted to see our boat, so we took her on a tour of the Joint Adventure. Her southern accent was so thick we had to strain to understand her, but she was just a peach of a kid and a joy to talk with.

 

This is Keith and Debby and the houseboat that they plan to live on. Keith was a trucker for years but was forced to retire for health reasons. He sold this boat a year ago, but had to repossess it due to lack of payment. So we met them on the Tenn-Tom as they were bringing it to Mobile, then on to New Orleans where they live. Keith intends to earn a living buying older boats, fixing them up, then selling them.

This is Keith and Debby and the houseboat that they plan to live on. Keith was a trucker for years but was forced to retire for health reasons. He sold this boat a year ago, but had to repossess it due to lack of payment. So we met them on the Tenn-Tom as they were bringing it to Mobile, then on to New Orleans where they live. Keith intends to earn a living buying older boats, fixing them up, then selling them. Judging from the condition of this boat, he has his work cut out for himself.

While much of the Tenn-Tom Waterway is a wide, man-made canal, the dams at each of the locks create small lakes and wetland areas that are very beautiful. Often the channels entering the occasional marina wind through areas that are scattered with trees growing through the water or stumps from trees that have long since fallen. We planned to anchor out on Saturday night, but the wind was howling in the afternoon and we didn’t like any of the possible anchorages that we saw, particularly with the gusty winds. We therefore opted to go into the Aberdeen Marina, with a winding channel that required some focus. Here are some images from Aberdeen, Mississippi:

A beautiful wetland area, created when the Tenn-Tom was built.

A beautiful wetland area, created when the Tenn-Tom was built.

The narrow channel winds through this  tree and stump-filled wetland - better stay focused!

The narrow channel winds through this tree and stump-filled wetland – better stay focused!

I couldn't resist this sunset picture, taken from the bridge of the Joint Adventure at Aberdeen Marina

I couldn’t resist this sunset picture, taken from the bridge of the Joint Adventure at Aberdeen Marina

A few nights ago, I inadvertently left the VHF radio on and was awakened in the night by someone talking on the radio. I turned it off and went back to sleep.  However, it reminded me of the last time I left the radio on and went to bed.  We were bringing the Joint Adventure to Boston from Florida where we had purchased her, and were tied to a dock at a marina about a mile up a river from the Intracoastal Waterway in the low country of Georgia. Around 2:00 in the morning, the radio started to squawk. I was in a deep sleep, out cold;  I thought it was my alarm clock and I groped around in the dark, pushing every button I could find to turn it off. I finally woke up enough to realize it was the VHF radio, so I stumbled to the breaker panel and shut it off, then went back to bed.  Now half awake, I started to connect the dots as I lay in bed.  Could I have pressed the “DISTRESS” button on the radio?  Did I just call the Coast Guard? I sat up wondering what to do, slowly deciding I’d better turn my radio back on when suddenly my cell phone rang (remember, it was 2:00 AM). “Is this Mr. Koningisor?” Yes, it is. “This is the United States Coast Guard.  We received a distress signal from your radio and are preparing to send out a Search and Rescue mission.  Are you OK?” I sheepishly explained what had happened. Fortunately, he pretended to be somewhat understanding and just scolded me mildly. As I lay back in bed, I had visions of helicopters descending upon me next to the dock where I was safely tied, then receiving a bill from the Coast Guard for $25,000. I’m surprised I ever used the radio again.

So we spent a day in Aberdeen, Mississippi, and are now in Columbus, on the Tenn-Tom waterway 335 miles by water from Mobile, Alabama and the Gulf of Mexico.  Here are some images from our stays in Aberdeen and Columbus:

Aberdeen, Mississippi is an interesting town with many historic homes and buildings. Main Street has a covered sidewalk along its entire length on both sides, and the town boasts a historic architectural tour of over 50 homes from various periods and displaying various styles of architecture.

Aberdeen, Mississippi is an interesting town with many historic homes and buildings. Main Street has a covered sidewalk along its entire length on both sides, and the town boasts a historic architectural tour of over 50 homes from various periods and displaying various styles of architecture.

One of the nearly 50 historic architectural tour in Aberdeen

One of the nearly 50 historic architectural tour in Aberdeen

Aberdeen has a rich history with music, particularly the blues, as captured in this large mural on Main Street

Aberdeen has a rich history with music, particularly the blues, as captured in this large mural on Main Street

My Dad making sure our lines on the dock are ship shape - if only we kept the inside of the boat so neat and organized...

My Dad making sure our lines on the dock are ship shape – if only we kept the inside of the boat so neat and organized…

So I tried to come up with a clever caption for this picture but drew a blank - can anyone help me out?  I'll put the best ones in a subsequent post

So I tried to come up with a clever caption for this picture but drew a blank – can anyone help me out? I’ll put the best ones in a subsequent post

 

An impromptu Happy Hour/Dock Party at the marina in Columbus, organized by our friends Scott & Angela on the boat "Lucky Lucky", whom we first met on our first day out of Chicago on the Illinois River when we both had to wait several hours for a lock, tied to a barge and then to a seawall.  Scott & Angela are doing the Great Loop with their two daughters, age 10 and 7 (or thereabouts - I have trouble remembering the ages of my own kids...). Angela is home-schooling them during their year on the boat - an interesting and challenging task, I'm sure!

An impromptu Happy Hour/Dock Party at the marina in Columbus, organized by our friends Scott & Angela on the boat “Lucky Lucky”, whom we met on our first day out of Chicago on the Illinois River when we both had to wait several hours for a lock, tied to a barge and then to a seawall. Scott & Angela are doing the Great Loop with their two daughters, age 10 and 7 (or thereabouts – I have trouble remembering the ages of my own kids…).  Angela is home-schooling their daughters during their year on the boat – an interesting and challenging task, I’m sure!

Sadly, my Dad and Tom left the boat yesterday to go back to the real world. I will miss them!  So Paul and I are on our own for a couple of weeks until our friend Jake joins us later in the month.  Tomorrow, we continue our march south.

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