Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Robert St. John: Birthplace

PETROGNANO, ITALY— It’s true that there’s no place like home, and I deeply and dearly love my hometown of Hattiesburg and my home state of Mississippi. I could live other places, but I never will. My roots are in South Mississippi. I am a seventh generation citizen of the Pine Belt and I am Mississippi to the core. Texans are known for being proud of their home state. For me, I have Texas pride— times ten— for Mississippi.

Though it’s strange, when I first traveled to Tuscany in 2011 as part of a larger and longer European journey, I felt at home. It’s wasn’t Italy necessarily, as I covered the country that month, from the southern tip of Sicily to the Dolomites. It was Tuscany, specifically.

From day one, Tuscany has always felt a lot like the American South, and more specifically, my beloved Mississippi. When one breaks down the comparison, it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. Tuscany is an agrarian society. Though, instead of cotton and soybeans, they are growing grapes and olives. The people are warm and friendly. Mississippi is known as the hospitality state. The Tuscans are family oriented, it’s the same back home. And the Tuscan people love sharing a meal. Sound familiar?

Granted the landscape has more rolling hills, but the summer heat and humidity are comparable. Though Tuscans don’t know— or more specifically, they don’t put as much of a priority on— air conditioning. We love our central air units from May through September. I won’t make apologies for that.

One would say that their history is rich and storied. What is new around here is considered very old back home. New Orleans just celebrated a 300-year anniversary, certainly old in our part of the world. But there is a 2,700 year old Etruscan tomb across the road from our villa, which is just one small historic detail in any direction on any road in this part of the world. Three hundred years ago is yesterday around here. The Via Roma which stretches through town, just a mile away from here, is so old that when Jesus was walking in Jerusalem, there were people walking on that road. It’s the same road I travel every morning as I head to the local bakery for breakfast.

But we have an ancient history as well. In 8,000 B.C. there were nomadic natives in North America. There’s just no written history to chronicle their past. Our recorded history begins around 1492.

I still feel at home when I come here. These days I host five tour groups in the spring and five in the fall. Last week I led a group through Spain and beginning April 24th, I’ll be leading a group through England and Scotland. In between I am hosting three groups in Tuscany. Last week, when we were leaving Barcelona and flying into Florence it almost felt like I was going home. I have probably spent close to two years here since 2011 (most of that since 2016) and I know the area well.

But I am not home. Mississippi is my home and will always be my home. This is work. It’s filled with long hours and challenging situations, but I come from the restaurant business, a week of problems that could occur over here is equal to one bad dinner shift back home. And if one must work somewhere, this ain’t a bad place to work.

Actually, Tuscany made me appreciate my home state more. I live in a state with the tag, “Mississippi the birthplace of America’s music.” I remember hearing that line back in the 90s and thinking, that’s a nice marketing slogan, but I didn’t give it much thought. I don’t think I even believed it.

Back on the original trip in 2011 we were invited to a bed and breakfast in the Tuscan countryside that was hosting a dinner event with a live band. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a British cover band sing American rock and roll in Italian. We were seated with two couples who were visiting from Milan. In the middle of a rousing chorus of “Sweet Home Alabama,” one of the ladies asked, “Where do you live in America?”

“Hattiesburg, Mississippi,” I replied.

“Like the river?” They all know the river over here, but many don’t know the state— we can be a landmass over here, too.

“Yes, like the river that borders us.” But that doesn’t really give them any bearings. “I live one hour north of the Gulf of Mexico,” I say.

“Ah, Mexico.”

“Yes, but the Gulf. We are 90 minutes northeast of New Orleans.” That always brings recognition.

“New Orleans. I love Jazz!”

“Yes, that is where jazz was invented. And if you drive a little north of New Orleans, you’ll hit Highway 49. I was born in a hospital beside Highway 49. And if you follow that highway to the Mississippi Delta, it crosses Highway 61 and that is where blues was invented.”

“Ah, blues! B.B. King. Muddy Waters.” They all know B.B.

“That’s right. And if you believe Muddy Waters— and I do— when he sang “The blues had a baby and they named the baby rock and roll,” you can travel just a few hours east and hit Tupelo, Mississippi and that is where Elvis Presley was born.


“Yes, Elvis,” I say. They definitely know Elvis.

I was halfway down Highwy 45 to Meridian to tell my newfound Milanese friends about Jimmie Rogers, the father of country music, when it dawned on me, in the public room of a bed in breakfast near San Donato, Italy— Mississippi IS the birthplace of America’s music. Europeans appreciated that way before we did, and we’re Mississippians. To many Europeans, Mississippi is an exotic land filled with amazing music. After that epiphany I began to see Mississippi as a magical place filled with amazing music. Of all the cultural gifts one state could give to the world, several genres of music tops my list. I just couldn’t see the forest for the pine trees until that night.

I have hosted several of my Italian and Dutch friends in Mississippi. They all love it. The comment I hear most is, “Everyone is so friendly.” That’s hospitality.

Europeans I meet over here will often say, “I’ve been to America,”

I always reply, “Let me guess, New York, Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles?”


“You haven’t really been to America,” I say.

A statement that is often attributed to William Faulkner— but it’s doubtful he said it— states, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” I don’t believe the source of that quote— whomever it was— was speaking glowingly about my home state at the time. But in 2024, I believe the world would be a lot better off with the cultural richness and attitudes of the friendly people of Mississippi.

There is truly no place like my home.


Gnocchi with Butter and Sage

Italians love sage. I do, too. One sees it in many meat preparations, but another common application is with gnocchi.

1 pound Gnocchi
8 TB Unsalted butter

¼ cup Shallot, minced

8-10 each Fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 tsp Kosher salt

1 cup Chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

Shredded Parmigiano Reggiano as needed.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over low heat. Add the shallot and chopped sage and cook over low heat for 4-5 minutes, being careful not to burn. Add the gnocchi and continue, stirring occasionally for an additional 4-5 minutes. Let the gnocchi brown slightly. Add the stock and increase heat to medium. Continue cooking until most of the stock has evaporated and the gnocchi is hot, about 4-5 minutes.

Divide among 6-8 bowls and finish each with shredded cheese as desired.


3 ea Russett potatoes (about 1 ½ lbs)

5 ea Egg yolks

3 cups All-purpose flour

1 TB Kosher salt

½ tsp Ground white pepper

Wash potatoes thoroughly. Cover with cold water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Do not let water boil. Simmer potatoes for about an hour, or until tender. The skin will begin to crack.

When tender, drain water and remove peel while still warm using a serrated steak knife. Hold potatoes in a kitchen towel to avoid burning your hands. Run potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer into a mixing bowl. Fold in egg yolks, 2 ½ cups flour, salt and pepper. Work quickly, forming into a smooth ball, and do not let potato mixture cool.

Divide mixture into 6 pieces and roll each out on floured work surface using both hands until about ½ inch in diameter (using remaining flour plus more as needed).

Using a dough knife or butter knife, cut each log into roughly 15 to 20 ½ inch pieces.

Fill a large sauce pot with salted water and bring to a simmer. Place gnocchi 15-20 at a time into simmering water and remove when they float. Transfer onto a lightly oiled surface.

Yield: 90-120 pieces

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS