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Debating society

  • Jon Kelly
  • 26 Sep 08, 07:26 PM GMT

When John McCain announced he was stepping on a plane to Oxford, Mississippi, the town breathed a sigh of relief.

The Republican candidate's decision to show up for 2008's first presidential debate - having previously called for it to be postponed - meant that this little college community could hold on to its moment in the spotlight.

The event is a very big deal here. The University of Mississippi has spent around $5m preparing to host it. And the acres of red, white and blue livery outside every store and business in the town is testament to the amount of cash locals hope to make from the temporary influx of media.

Courtney GordonCourtney Gordon, 31, had as much of a stake as anyone in ensuring it went ahead. Her gift shop, the Lilypad, was selling piles of debate memorabilia - election-themed badges, books and mugs - which would have been worthless in the event of a cancellation.

"When I heard it was going to happen after all, I was just so relieved," she said.

"Not just for me, for the whole town. So many people have invested so much in the debate. It's going to put us on the map.

"If it had been postponed, that would have meant we wouldn't have been the first to hold the debate - and that would have devalued the whole event for us."

Marvin BrownIt wasn't only local people who had been hoping that Mr McCain showed up, however. Just around the corner, I met 40-year-old Marvin Brown, who had come down from Chicago with a stall full of Obama t-shirts.

Marvin has been following the Illinois senator around the country with his wares. "Wherever he goes, I go," he told me. He had never doubted that the debate would go ahead as planned.

I broke the news to him that Mr McCain was on his way.

"Is he? I'm not surprised," Marvin said.

"All that was just political manouvering. He was always going to show up.

"I'm looking forward to the debate. Obama will come out on top - he understands the ordinary man better than McCain does."

John and Chelsea HerbertNot everyone was lining their own pockets, however. In the town's square, John Herbert, 46, was charging passers-by to pose with cardboard cut-outs of Obama, McCain or Sarah Palin. ("We couldn't get hold of Joe Biden," he admitted).

John was raising funds so that his 16-year-old daughter Chelsea could attend the Edinburgh Festival next summer with the Oxford High School Theatre Group. A McCain supporter, he acknowledged that his favoured candidate's standing would have been damaged in this safe Republican state had he pulled out.

"I think a lot of people round here would have been really angry if he hadn't come," he admitted.

"Now, though, I think everyone's just really pleased. We're going to be number one after all."

Southern comfort

  • Jon Kelly
  • 26 Sep 08, 08:49 AM GMT

I can't get over how much food they serve over here. You can see from my photo that I'm no picky eater. But in most diners I've visited, it's impossible to order anything smaller than my head.

I'm not complaining, however. Where have pinto beans, hash brown casserole and turnip greens been all my life? You might not be rid of me as soon as you thought, Americans. There's no way I'll fit on that plane home.

All my gluttony got me thinking, though. Surely one route to understanding a people's collective soul is through their stomachs?

John T EdgeJohn T Edge agrees. In particular, he has made it his mission to understand how the South has been shaped by its cuisine as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance - based at the University of Mississippi, where James Meredith fought for equality all those years ago.

I was invited by John, 45, over to his house for a barbecue so he could explain further. Why not, I thought (and besides, it would have been rude to turn him down).

As he laid out plates of fried chicken, devilled eggs, pimento cheese sandwiches and moon pies, he recalled how a black woman was employed to prepare his family's meals during his middle-class childhood in Georgia.

Whatever that said about the legacy of Southern race relations, he argued, it showed him from an early age how black and white could find common ground at the dinner table.

"Food is a big deal down here. This was a place where you couldn't share a lunch counter with folks who looked different without starting a riot," he added.

"But it was also a shared experience. Fried chicken started out as something cooked by blacks, but they brought it into the homes of the whites who employed them.

"That's why it's so important. We find our shared humanity in what we eat."

With an Obama placard on his front lawn, John was confident that a common palate was bringing previously antagonistic groups together.

But for his colleague Melissa Hall, 40 - born in Kentucky, now resident in Mississippi too - Southern cooking had always been intrinsically egalitarian.

"When you eat in the South, you're expected to share," she said.

"The reason they serve so much is that there's such recent folk memories of not having enough."

table203.jpgWhy, she asked, were Italian and French peasant dishes imitated by the world's best chefs, while the notion of taking their American equivalents equally seriously seemed strange to many?

It was a good point. And it's true that the influences on Southern cuisine - African, French, Scots-Irish and so on - show how the South has had a more cosmopolitan history than is readily perceived by outsiders.

Also at the barbecue was 40-year-old David Waller, a chef at Taqueria del Sol Atlanta, Georgia, in town to provide catering for tonight's presidential debate.

He specialised in Mexican food - sure to increasingly make its mark on the southern palate if demographic forecasts are correct.

"Mexican and Southern food are actually pretty similar," he said.

"You don't want to waste anything. You use everything you can."

Given the number of Americans who've told me how worried they are about the economy, maybe voters are about to renew their taste for both?

Student politics

  • Jon Kelly
  • 26 Sep 08, 08:13 AM GMT

I feel sorry for scholars at the University of Mississippi. One minute their very own campus is due to host a presidential debate. The next, one of the contenders wants the plug pulled.

The editors of the Daily Mississippian, Ole Miss's student newspaper, don't conceal their anxiety. Over a photo of John McCain, the splash headline asks: WILL HE SHOW?

A leader column argues that the Republican contender must honour his commitment to attend: "Now more than ever, we as Americans desperately want to hear the voices of our future leaders."

I hope I, as a member of the media, am not inconveniencing them too much, either. The campus, another article says, "is bracing itself for the influx of reporters".

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