Delta

ruins of Windsor Plantation

Found myself, for the second time in two years, driving Highway 61 through the Mississippi Delta.  I don’t feel like I intended this, exactly.  Once was good.  But there I was again.

This map by Raven Maps was a breakthrough in understanding the Delta, what makes this region freakish and weird and unique.  The Delta is low-lying bottomland.  Thinking of the Mississippi in this area as a line on a map is inaccurate, it’s more like a periodically swelling and retreating wetland, like the Amazon or the Nile.  Floods are frequent, vegetation grows thick, the soil is rich and good for growing cotton.  That is the curse, blessing and history of the Delta.  This year Highway 61 was almost flooded below Vicksburg.

The river from the bluffs at Natchez

The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where ducks waddle and turtles drowse, ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta and many who are on the make.

So said David Cohn in his famous essay of 1935.

It’s been awhile since I was at The Peabody.

Dave Cohn was Jewish.  Shelby Foote had a Jewish grandfather.  The Delta was diverse.

So says Shelby.  On the Delta fondness for canned beans:

from:

Here’s something North Mississippi Hill Country man Faulkner had to say about people in this region:

Q: Well, in the swamp, three of the men that lived in the swamp did have names – Tine and Toto and Theule, and I wonder if those names had any type of significance or were supposed to be any type of literary allusion.  They’re rather colorful names, I think.

A: No, I don’t think so.  They were names, you might say, indigenous to that almost unhuman class of people which live between the Mississippi River and the levee.  They belong to no state, they belong to no nation.  They – they’re not citizens of anything, and sometimes they behave like they don’t even belong to the human race.

Q: You have had experience with these people?

A: Yes.  Yes, I remember once one of them was going to take me hunting.  He invited me to come and stay with his kinfolks – whatever kin they were I never did know – a shanty boat in the river, and I remember the next morning for breakfast we had a bought chocolate cake and a cold possum and corn whiskey.  They had given me the best they had.  I was company.  They had given me the best food they had.

The Delta is a ghost town.  In 2013 The Economist reported

Between 2000 and 2010 16 Delta counties lost between 10% and 38% of their population. Since 1940, 12 of those counties have lost between 50% of 75% of their people.

Another Economist piece from the same era has a great graphic of this:

“You can’t out-poor the Delta,” says Christopher Masingill, joint head of the Delta Regional Authority, a development agency. In parts of it, he says, people have a lower life expectancy than in Tanzania; other areas do not yet have proper sanitation.

Everywhere you see abandoned buildings, rotting shacks, collapsing farmhouses.  This gives the place a spooky quality.  It’s like coming across the shedding shell of a cicada.  There are signs of a once-rich life that is gone.

Here’s an amazing post about the sunken ruins of the plantation of Jefferson Davis.

Every town that still exists along the river of the Delta is on high ground or a bluff.  Natchez, Port Gibson, Vicksburg.  Once beneath these towns there were great temporary floating communities of keelboats, canoes.  But the river has flooded and receded and changed its course many times.  Charting the historical geography of these towns is confusing.   Whole towns have disappeared, or been swallowed.

Brunswick Landing, of which nothing remains.

The first time I ever thought about the Mississippi Delta was when I came across this R. Crumb cartoon about Charley Patton, who was from Sunflower County.

Something like 2,000 people lived and worked at Dockery Plantation.  It’s worth noting that this plantation was started after slavery, it was begun in 1895.

At the time, much of the Delta area was still a wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and wolves and plagued with mosquitoes. The land was gradually cleared and drained for cotton cultivation, which encouraged an influx of black labourers.

In a way, the blues era, say 1900-1940 or so, was a kind of boomtime in the Delta.  The blues can be presented as a music of misery and pain but what if it was also a music of prosperity?  Music for Saturday night on payday, music for when recording first reached communities exploding with energy?  Music from the last period of big employment before mechanization took the labor out of cotton?  How much did the Sears mail order catalog help create the Delta blues?

We stopped at Hopson Commissary in Clarksdale, once the commissary of the Hopson plantation.  (Once did someone run to get cigarettes from there?)  Here was the first fully mechanized cotton harvest – where the boomtime peaked, and ended.  If you left Mississippi around this time, you probably left on the train from Clarksdale.

 

If in Clarksdale I can also recommend staying at The Delta Bohemian guest house.  We were company and they gave us their best.

you may need this number

Here’s something weird we saw, near Natchez:

A topic of controversy.

We listened to multiple podcasts about Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads, that whole bit.  The interesting part of the story (to me) is that, according to the memories of those who knew him, Robert Johnson did somehow, suddenly, get way better at the guitar.  I like this take the best:

Some scholars have argued that the devil in these songs may refer not only to the Christian figure of Satan but also to the African trickster god Legba, himself associated with crossroads. Folklorist Harry M. Hyatt wrote that, during his research in the South from 1935 to 1939, when African-Americans born in the 19th or early 20th century said they or anyone else had “sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads,” they had a different meaning in mind. Hyatt claimed there was evidence indicating African religious retentions surrounding Legba and the making of a “deal” (not selling the soul in the same sense as in the Faustian tradition cited by Graves) with the so-called devil at the crossroads.

Does everybody in the music business sell their soul to the Devil, one way or another?

Is there something vaguely embarrassing about white obsession with old blues? I get the yearning to connect to a past that sounds like it’s almost disappeared, where just the barest, rawest trace echoes through time.  But doesn’t all this come a little too close to taking a twisted pleasure in misery?  And is there something a little gloves-on, safe remove about focusing on music from eighty years ago, when presumably somewhere out there real life people are creating vital music, right now?

I dunno, maybe there’s something cool and powerful about how lonely nerds and collectors somewhere and like tourists from Belgium connecting to the sounds of desperate emotion from long dead agricultural workers.

My favorite of the old blues songs is Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.  Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t even from the Delta though, he was from Pendleton, Texas.

 


Alpha beta gamma

In small packs of mammals there’s an alpha male who gets all the females by fighting off the other males, who have to go off and live by themselves and get stronger before the next rutting season.  This is a pattern for instance among sea lions, and elephant seals, and horned beasts like elk.

But nature is funny.  At the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve in Buttonwillow they have an interesting piece of taxidermy.  It’s two elks that got in a fight, the alpha I guess and a challenger.  The one elk’s horn went in the other elk’s eye, and killed him.  Which would seem like a win, except with his horn caught on a dead elk, unable to get it off, the surviving elk ended up getting weighed down and dying himself.

The rangers swore that’s what happened, anyway.

There’s all this talk about alpha and beta in advice to young men, which overlooks that our society is quite a bit more complex, there are lots of ways to distinguish yourself and make yourself attractive, and our females are not as simpleminded and docile as cow-elks.

When it comes to alpha and beta, maybe sometimes what you want is to let them two kill each other and be the Gamma Guy left standing.

 


Food scene in Papeete, Tahiti

It is one of the world’s great ports of call, comparing with nostalgic and wonderful names like Rangoon, Singapore, Shanghai, Valparaiso and Acapulco.  Yet it is grander than any of these, for at Papeete the ships of many seas dock right along the main street.  From the stern of a Hong Kong junk to the post office is twenty yards.  From the bowlines of a San Pedro yacht to the bank is one city block.  Without qualification I can say that the waterfront of Papeete, with Moorea in the background, is unequaled.

Yet many visitors despite Papeete.  They have no words strong enough to descrive its shanties, its poor water, the crowded alleys, honky-tonks, bootleg opium, wildcat gambling and rapacious prices.  They say, “You hear about the glamorous beaches, but you can’t find one where the average yokel is allowed to swim.”  Such critics leave in a hurry and complain endlessly to friends back home that “everyone who ever wrote about Tahiti from Pierre Loti to Frederick O’Brien is a liar.”  As a much-disappointed frined of mine said, “Papeete?  What a bust!  Tia Juana without tequila.”
There is much to the comparison, for Papeete does resemble a Mexican border town, not so dirty along the main streets, dirtier in the alleys. To those who insist that all picturesque towns look like Siena or Stratford-on-Avon, Papeete will be disappointing, but to others who love the world in all its variety, the town is fascinating.  My own judgment: any town that wakes each morning to see Moorea is rich in beauty.
So says James Michener in:
More:
I like the cluttered streets and the neat parks, the narrow alleys and the wide verandahs, the jumbled stores each with some one unpredictable thing for sale “En Vente Ici.  Dernier Arrivage.  Campbell Soup.”  I like the noisy poolrooms, the perfume shops, the policemen on rickety bicycles, the Chinese dress shops with sewing machines whirring like mad, the dreadful hotels, the worse ice-cream stands and the happy faces.  It has been aptly said of Papeete, “It drives Englishmen, schoolteachers and efficiency experts crazy.”  There is something childishly delightful about every aspect of the place.  One movie house advertises the Hunchback of Notre Dame as “Supersensational, Archiformidable, Hyperprodigieux!!!!” Whereupon the competition states baldly of Rene Clair’s Le Million: “The best motion picture in the world.”
In Michener’s day it was pretty hard to get to Papeete.  He even discusses how hard it was to get a visa.  But in the early 1960s the French, needing an international airport to service their nuclear test site in the Gambiers, built one in Papeete.
Now Tahiti is a direct flight from LA.  The prevailing winds blow from LA towards Tahiti, making this a pretty attractive sail, easy enough that it’s called The Cocoanut Milk Run.

One thing I was surprised by in Papeete was how much I liked the food.  The market is full of fresh, wonderful stuff.

There you can get a baquette stuffed with meat (pork or chicken) and french fries.

At night the roulettes are the place to be.

Peugot food trucks.

The staple is poisson cru, a cocoanut milk ceviche.  Grilled mahi mahi seen here, too.

Further out of town you can buy a boiled breadfruit:

Nourishing but it needs a little something.  Salt’s a good start.

 

 


The Glorious First of June

painted here by Philip James de Loutherbourg, who sounds cool as shit:

a Franco-British painter who became known for his large naval works, his elaborate set designs for London theatres, and his invention of a mechanical theatre called the “Eidophusikon”. He also had an interest in faith-healing and the occult and was a companion of the confidence-trickster Cagliostro.


Bird

Look I like markets, but it’s enough to make a guy a socialist when you observe how easy and consequence-free it is for a company to leave plastic-and-electronic shits on the sidewalk all over the place.  There’s always a grotesque euphemism:

 


Beyond

Beyond Beef ($BYND) IPO’d.  Unlike Uber, it has so far been a huge success.

I will disclose bought some shares of BYND once it was launched.  (I didn’t, like, “get in” on the IPO, like early investor Bill Gates no doubt did, I bought them on day one as soon as I realized it’d happened).

This product is dynamite.  The killer element: there is no gluten, no soy, and no GMO.  Soy-based meat replacements have always seemed pretty limp to me.  Beyond Beef I believe I first tried in burger form: terrific.  The crumbles I’ve used to make very satisfying bolognese-style ragus.  Beyond Beef uses pea protein.  I love peas. Here’s Orson Welles reading an ad for peas.

“Every July, peas grow there.”  I think of that whenever I think of peas.

Tyson and some powerful competitors may get in the alt-meat game.  I’m not certain Beyond’s moat will hold, but I think it’s hard to make an acceptable beef substitute to a beef eater, and they have done so.

A perfect use for this product is in the junk beef realm, the world of frozen ground beef for fast food tacos and burgers, where the beef itself is of probably repulsive quality, raised under obscene conditions, and the taste is really coming from packets of flavor-enhancing additives.

Beyond’s ability to get in on this market impresses me.  When I saw that Del Taco was serving Beyond tacos I tried them immediately.  Here was an area well within my circle of competence (fast food tacos) where I had an advantage over other investors because I live in Del Taco’s range, near their headquarters.

Del Taco originated in the Mojave Desert.  The Mojave Desert may represent a possible future for the United States, and thus be on the cutting edge of trends.  There’s certainly something sci-fi about the landscape.   Something prophetic about the landscape, as well.  Biblical.  When pioneers reached the American desert, it was probably hard not to remember the desert landscapes of the Bible, and marvel at the prophetic power of the Bible on what would be faced on the way to the Promised Land.

At the Del Taco in Ontario where we stopped to try these tacos again, I asked the kid how the Beyond tacos are selling.  He told me they were selling em out every day.

Del Taco’s stock has the ticker symbol TACO.  Surely Matt Levine or someone has examined how gimmick tickers tend to do.  Del Taco’s stock has never been a great winner.  Last five years:

Here is the last six months:

A pretty narrow range.  The Beyond taco launched April 25.  Possible that ~$1 bump there in late April – May comes from the Beyond release.  Or just from the stock crossing and staying beyond the legendary $10 threshold.

Whether stocks under $10 really are often ignored by big institutions or not, I haven’t really investigated, I’ve seen takes on both sides and can offer no informed opinion.  It does seem like, despite Malkiel, there are dumb glitches like that in markets all the time.

Is Del Taco an effective sneak way of riding the BYND wave?  I don’t know. On May 6, Del Taco posted some disappointing earnings results.

source: CNBC

CEO John Cappasola had explanations though, don’t worry:

Although our quarterly results were negatively impacted by unfavorable weather in California and throughout the West as well as the anticipated three-week shift of the Lenten season

And consider his inspiring tone as he discusses the new Beyond campaign:

Last but certainly not least, we are using menu innovation to drive traffic in incremental Del Taco occasions with the exciting recent launch of the Beyond Taco and Beyond Avocado Taco, which are now available in all restaurants. As guest demand for vegan and vegetarian options continues to grow, we took the opportunity to partner with Beyond Meat, an innovative leader in plant-based proteins, to be the first Mexican QSR chain to develop a proprietary blend seasoned 100% plant-based protein.

A key objective as we developed our Beyond Taco strategy was competitive differentiation which we attack on three fronts, flavor, variety and convenient value. The team did a great job developing a proprietary and unique flavor profile that taste incredibly similar to our current ground beef, allowing us to broaden its appeal to not only attract vegans and vegetarians, but also those looking for better for you options or to reduce red meat without sacrificing flavor.

Next is variety. Our Beyond ground protein can be substituted for any other protein or added on any menu item, including burritos, nachos, bowls or salads. This provides best-in-class variety to our guests and endless future product innovation opportunities for our culinary team.

Word about the Beyond tacos is JUST getting out.  I think it’s fair to say I’m close to the front lines when it comes to fast food taco news.  Has the full impact been felt?  Will it matter?  How much of Del Taco’s consumers are recurring customers?  Will they care about this new item?  Will new customers be drawn in by Del Taco’s enticing campaign (advertised on signs outside every location I’ve seen in SoCal?  Who is eating the Beyond taco?  Cappasola:

And as expected, we are seeing some new faces as well as a lot of trial among our existing guests. So great opportunity here from a consumer standpoint. Generally, this is the type of customer that is in QSR today and QSR just is not traditionally providing them great options and we feel like we can.

It’s fun to think of the stock market as a chance to gamble on all these variables.  It will be interesting if TACO stock falls below $10 again.

One problem, I’d say, is that a Beyond taco costs fully a dollar more than a regular taco.

The pendulum seems like it’s swung in the USA national mood from feeling pretty optimistic about the future, as I think we all did in say 2009, to feeling pretty grim.  Maybe that’s just me getting older or my narrow bubble, but it feels like there’s less talk of wonderful possibilities for the near future.  Eliminating or reducing industrial meat-farming, improving our diets, making more and better food options available even in the cheap fast food space seems to me like it could be a great development of a blossoming future.

The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades, or as John Cappasola puts it:

Our operational efforts are paying off with early guest experience measurement survey results showing a high level of guest satisfaction for Beyond Tacos, even higher than the very successful Del Taco following its launch.

For me as a consumer, I will say, when I left Del Taco after trying the Beyonds for a second time, I felt, “now here’s brand that can deliver a value-oriented QSR-Plus position.”  Which, it turns out, is just what Del Taco was aiming for!

(Disclosure: I am nothing more than an enthusiastic amateur and I do not offer investment or financial advice.  I do not own shares of TACO at this time but I’m thinkin’ bout it!

Other Helytimes posts on business


Plans are worthless, but planning is everything

During a speech in November 1957 Eisenhower employed the saying again. He told an anecdote about the maps used during U.S. military training. Maps of the Alsace-Lorraine area of Europe were used during instruction before World War I, but educational reformers decided that the location was not relevant to American forces. So the maps were switched to a new location within the U.S. for planning exercises. A few years later the military was deployed and fighting in the Alsace-Lorraine: 2

I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

so says Quote Investigator.  Eisenhower’s speech can be found here.  Nixon picked up the quote in

I remember learning at the Nixon library about Nixon’s writing routine when he wrote this book in a house in Apple Valley, CA:

He used a Dictaphone or wrote longhand, working in seclusion, according to Esquire Magazine.
For breakfast, he ate a bowl of Grape Nuts and drank a can of orange juice. He wrote until noon, then paused for a ham sandwich.

Believe I first heard Eisenhower’s quote from Jeff Melvoin at a WGA showrunner training like mini-camp.  I’ve found it profound.

One time a female Uber driver told me the secret to winning over women is “plan ahead.”

A brief skim of Eisenhower images on NARA.GOV leads us to this gem

General Eisenhower’s dog, Telek, poses for photographers on top of desk. [65-658]