The Big Dinner on the Ground – Mississippi Picnic in Central Park 33rd Celebration

Ridgeland Tourism Commission: Shirley Williams, Mina Thorgeson, Dawn Warrington, Doyle Warrington. Photo by GUEST BOHEMIAN EB BLAKNEY

Ridgeland Tourism Commission: Shirley Williams, Mina Thorgeson, Dawn Warrington, Doyle Warrington. Photo by GUEST BOHEMIAN EB BLAKNEY

By Guest Bohemian Erickson EB Blakney, Broadcast Journalist and Documentarian

with Publisher’s Footnote

New York City – PHOTO GALLERY –

“Follow your nose, it always knows,” so goes the popular ad jingle.  Saturday, as I was standing at the far southwestern reaches of Central Park’s Sheep’s Meadow, I detected the faint, yet distinct aroma of a ‘good ol’ down home catfish fry.’

Adhering to the advice of Toucan Sam, I followed that scent and the steady twanging sound of a banjo directly to the source. What I stumbled upon was a whole mess of Mississippians and assorted strays celebrating at the 33rd Annual Mississippi Picnic in Central Park.

As they have for the past three decades, current Mississippians, ex-Magnolia-staters, and the curious gathered and ate, drank, danced, jaw-boned, laughed, slapped backs, hugged, networked, reminisced and for an afternoon celebrated the one thing that connected them: their love of Mississippi.

According to picnic co-founder Rachel MacPherson, “It’s the love of Mississippi that keeps people coming back in addition to the food and great music, I mean it’s just a great, southern dinner-on-the-ground as always.” The Monticello-native who is also the founder of a nonprofit called the Good Dog Foundation which trains man’s best friend to be good therapy dogs, said that while it’s hard work organizing the picnic, it’s worth it to see people enjoying themselves. She added, “I’ll be fine after a couple of mint juleps, you know, a little branch water.”

And while there are always plenty of regulars, there were many first-timers, this year, including Governor Phil Bryant. “Once you get to be governor, this is one of the things you get to do,” said Bryant who gave the picnic two thumbs up. “Mississippi, Central Park, catfish and the Blues, I love it,” he added.

Ginger Johnson and John Sherman from Clarksdale at Mississippi Picnic in Central Park. PHOTO BY GUEST BOHEMIAN EB BLAKNEY

Ginger Johnson and John Sherman from Clarksdale at Mississippi Picnic in Central Park. PHOTO BY GUEST BOHEMIAN EB BLAKNEY

Attorney John Sherman and Ginger Johnson (owner of Hyde Brothers True Value Hardware), both from Clarksdale, were also newbies. “We’ve heard so much about it and have had so many friends who have come that I had to put it on my ‘bucket-list,’” said Sherman.  Johnson who used the trip to Gotham to catch Letterman and visit the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, said she was really enjoying herself and added, “I can’t believe I had to come all the way up to New York to get great catfish.”

Dallas Reed, of Montclair, New Jersey attended with her parents.  All three were first-timers. Reed, who received her PhD from Jackson State and worked for several years at Mississippi Valley State University, said her trip to the picnic had been a long time coming. “It’s fabulous reconnecting with folks I haven’t seen in a long time and meeting new people.”  Asked what he thought about the picnic, her father, Hattiesburg-native Taft Reed said, “I don’t think it, I love it and I will be back.”

Among the “old guard” was New Yorker Alpha Pearl Williams who insisted, “I’ve been attending the picnic since the beginning of time.”  What keeps her coming back? “Friends, the chance to reminisce and I love the food,” said Williams, originally from Philadelphia, Mississippi. She and her husband Henry, a microbiologist, make it back to the Magnolia State about once a year. “Although I’ve been away from there for 50 years, it’s still home.” Williams was joined by her niece, Valeria Oneill another Jackson State graduate and Lawrenceville, New Jersey-based speech therapist.  “I just love the Mississippi hospitality,” said Oneill.

I bumped into Meredith Burgess. Currently in sales up here in the Big Apple, the Brandon-native and Ole Miss grad, declared, “This is awesome! It’s great to have a little bit of Mississippi in the City. It’s very unique, for sure!” She added, “In a place that is so large, it (the picnic) makes the City feel smaller.”

Shannon Bain, a music educator originally from Kosciusko, assembled a group of folks which included “kissin’ cousins” from Tennessee and Arkansas. He considers himself a southern ambassador. Said Bains, “We have so much common ground and common experiences we just sort of gravitate toward each other.”

For Bain’s friend Josie Rose, this was her first picnic even though she’s been in Manhattan for 14 years. A dancer, Rose was born in Biloxi but grew up in Ruleville in Sunflower County, “The music, the food, it’s awesome,” Rose said of the picnic. “I’ve actually run into people I know,” she added.

Rose was joined on the blanket by Amira Harb, originally from Knoxville, who said of the party, “It’s so fun, it makes me miss the south!” Asked if Mississippians know how to do it right, Harb, who works in human resources development answered, “Absolutely babe, but let’s not talk about football!”

Wendy Middleton, also part of Bain’s entourage, explained that her parents met at Mississippi College and her mother’s family is from Southaven. Of the picnic, the middle school teacher said, “I love it, I didn’t even know this was here.” She added that she would “definitely” come back.

Kids dancing to the Grady Champion at the 33rd Annual Mississippi Picnic in Central Park. PHOTO BY GUEST BOHEMIAN EB BLAKNEY

Kids dancing to the Grady Champion at the 33rd Annual Mississippi Picnic in Central Park. PHOTO BY GUEST BOHEMIAN EB BLAKNEY

To be sure, there was plenty of food, sweet tea and tooth-tinglingly sweet desserts. And as always, I caught up with Ken Akins of Madison, hovering over a row of deep-fryers spilling over with catfish, French fries and hushpuppies was Ken Akins of Madison. For about 28 years he’s been cooking for picnickers, “But who’s counting,” he said. Akins and his catfish cooking team brought up 500 pounds of catfish, nearly 200 pounds of hush puppies and about 300 pounds of French fries. He was un-phased by the warmer weather that had many folks fanning themselves with paper plates, napkins and whatever else they could grab a hold of.  Said Akins, “This is like cooking in the morning for me.”

As for the music, bluegrass came by way of the New York City Slickers. Bluesman Grady Champion rocked-the-juke with his harmonica. Jon Paris hit the stage with his blend of Blues-Rock. Faser and Annie Hardin’s New York City Slickers, by the way, will be touring in Mississippi shortly, while Grady Champion and his entourage are headed out to the West Coast and Canada for a two-month tour.

As you will see from the “unauthorized photograph,” the team from the Ridgeland Tourism Commission gave folks a reason to visit the Madison County city and taught New Yorkers how to have a good time. Once Bluesman Grady Champion hit the stage with his harmonica, Doyle, Mina, Shirley, Dawn and Doyle really juked-it-up dancing and tossing out mud-pies and cheese straws to passersby.

Bluegrass, Blues and Blues-Rock, fried catfish and “funny” accents made for sure made the picnic a southern “thing”. But what really made the experience southern for me were the names. Those beautiful, distinctive-in-their-uniqueness, southern names: Alpha Pearl, Dallas, Taft, Ginger, Faser, Doyal and Doyle. My own family is dotted with names like Simmie, Era, Sonny, Bib, Daisy, Betty Ruth, Jackson, St. Clair and River Lee so I’m just drawn to southern names.

The last person I ran into was “Prodigal Son” Doyal Siddell a New Jersey based marketing and communications consultant. I’ve known Siddell for eons. Originally from New Albany, Siddell hadn’t attended the picnic in years but said, “I’m glad I came just for the sake of renewing old friendships and making new ones!”

Finally I have to add, the celebs “in absentia” were Madge and Billy Howell! Whenever I mentioned to folks I was scribbling some notes for the DelBo, common refrains were, “Oh, I know Madge” or “Billy?! I know Billy!”  “Why aren’t they here?” So Madge, Billy… People will be expecting to see you in Gotham at Miss’sippi’s big “Dinner-on-the-Ground” next year!

— Erickson “EB” Blakney

EB’s Blues documentary True Delta, written by Lee Quinby and directed by Daniel Cowen, premiered at Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, CO last month. Catch it in Clarksdale in August during the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. Photography by Mike Scanlan will be on exhibit at the Delta Blues Museum

Click on image to see full photograph.

Publisher’s Footnote
It’s not often you have a chance meeting with someone who lives far from where you live yet a bond is forged that in unexplainable. EB Blakney and I have sealed that connection and goodness knows what we are gonna do with it. I basically know EB via email and his enthusiasm and zest for living jumps out at me every time I open a message from him. Perhaps that is our connection. A love for life, people, Mississippi and true stories.

EB, the DELTA BOHEMIAN™ is grateful for your contributions and support of our endeavors. These photographs and your story let our readers know just what they are missing by not being at the Mississippi Picnic in NYC. It’s been many years since I lived there and attended. Say, 1984? Your tease at the end has got me thinking….Gotham and the DELTA BOHEMIANS meet. Could be dangerous!

Everyone, visit EB’s site for his documentary, watch the trailer (fantastic) and give to this worthy endeavor. And, EB. We’ll see you in August and look forward to being side by side and face to face. Oh ye fellow DELTA BOHEMIAN™. 😎

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  1. Niiiiice, y’all!

  2. Nice job Madge and Billy!

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