Many people do not understand the rich symbiotic embrace of preacher and bootlegger that existed in the old South.
In the plainest of words, whiskey presented the opportunity to sin against oneself on Friday and Saturday night, and the preacher wiped it away on Sunday before noon. Rail as they might against each other, the two could hardly live apart. This was particularly true in Mississippi, which remained a dry state until 1966, long after Prohibition was overturned.
Of course, actually getting a drink wasn’t an issue. Just as folks did during the “official” years of Prohibition, the good people of Mississippi’s dry counties depended on the local bootleggers. As for law enforcement, the local sheriffs usually turned a blind eye; it was the Feds who would cause problems. Women would drink moonshine mixed with an ice cold bottle of Coke; it was considered feminine. Some women would mix whiskey and water, so it looked liked ice tea.
The problems of bootleg hooch were many, but for the poor, the issue at hand neither the moral dilemma extolled by the preacher nor the legal issue that Mississippi was a dry state. The problem was that the price of whiskey was just too high. For my grandfather Samuel Early Brunt, a poor tenet farmer in the hills of Mississippi, to come up with the dollar and some change that a cheap bottle of whiskey might cost was a rare and glorious occasion indeed.
But there was one bright fall day in 1940 when time and circumstance coincided. The family farm had been much reduced by that time, just a handful of acres that ran along Highway 12 in Attala County. Autumn is the time to burn off the fields and that is what old Sam Brunt was doing. Walking along behind the fire with a broad blade shovel, he crowded the crackling fire along the blacktop highway, using it as a natural fire break.
The heat of the fire would not have been uncomfortable as summer’s heat had abated and Sam may have been daydreaming, as such a pleasant day can tempt a man to do. But the moment was shattered with a huge whomp as a ball of flame exploded out of the grass in front of him. He was startled for a moment, but Sam was quick on his feet and, with nothing but the merest moment of hesitation, he charged into the flames.
Now to the uninformed, Sam’s actions might seem rash, perhaps mad even, but if you know the ways of the small town bootlegger, then you know exactly the thrill Sam most surely felt. Certainly there was elation, perhaps a questioning disbelief of the fortune that soon would be his. In truth, the headlong rush into the flames was made with no real forethought, or fear of consequences; it was as instinctual as a man catching a falling glass knocked off a dining room table.
So you want a bottle of whiskey, do you? In 1940s Mississippi, it was just a phone call away or a word passed to a knowing friend. You would receive a message in return: “Meet me on Highway 12, two miles north of town.” When you came along, there would be a fellow standing beside a car parked on the side of the road. You might shake hands and make small talk, as country people always do, but just as soon as the bootlegger was sure you were not the law, he would reach into the tall grass along the highway and retrieve the bottle he had hidden there.
So you see, what old Sam had discovered was a bootlegger’s treasure trove and, as such, he dove in again and again, rescuing the bottles as fast as he could. He had a bit of a stagger to his walk before all of his pockets were full, as he could not help but to pause from his labor and take a refreshing sip now and then.
His hair was singed, his overalls were blackened, and he was well into a good drunk when he got home. My father and his two guests, college professors from Holms Junior College, who had just stopped in for a sandwich, were startled when Sam banged in the back door, singing. In fact, dad was mortified. But Sam was in one hell of a fine mood and he lavished whiskey on the two professors. In an hour or two they left drunk as the old man. Dad had the privilege of driving them back to school, stopping along the way for them to be sick.
My father left school to join the army the next year. He fought through the war in Europe, from Normandy to the Elbe river, and then he came home again. He did a lot of whiskey drinking along the way, as did his brothers. Now it is my cousins and I who hold the line and insist that there’s not a thing in the world wrong with a sip of whiskey on a pleasant evening.
I travel quite a bit as a food writer, and I am always thrilled when I get an assignment in north Mississippi. If I am anywhere close at all, I make it to Kosciusko and then over to Highway 12, and the hamlet of Ethel. I can show you the field where Sam rescued the whiskey, and the urge is strong, every time, to stop and just take a look. Just in case.