A Mississippi Minute: Lauren-Rhymes-with-Foreign Edition

Some people just talk in poetry.
barbados woman

Barbados?” I asked. “How does a woman from Barbados end up in Biloxi, Mississippi?”

“I didn’t end up in Biloxi,” she said. “You end up somewhere when you try to go somewhere else and find you’re not appreciated there. I came to Biloxi.” It was a strong statement, the statement of a woman who takes no shit.

And even though I was only chatting with her as a prelude to buying some okra at her Farmer’s Market table, I quickly found that Lauren (“Rhymes with foreign,” she cackled) really is the sort of woman who takes no shit. So much so, in fact, that at one point she had a fight with her husband that involved her taking up a sword. Afterwards, she left the house and found a lawyer because, as she said, “Now we had problems.”

In between more stories about her spectacularly estranged husband, I picked up a bag of dried sorrel, the Caribbean term for hibiscus. Stuck to the worn Ziploc was a crumpled label with hand-written directions for making a drink from the contents. I handed her my three dollars and received in addition an extensive verbal lesson on those directions, the kind of lesson that assumes, a little bit, that you might be an idiot.

I returned two days later. I asked her if she had a cup, and she handed one over with a casualness that suggested that she knew I would be bringing her some of my sorrel to taste. I poured, noting how gorgeous it was, cranberry red and silky like cider.

“Oh, Francis. I can hear that ice clinking,” she said without looking away from the peas she was shelling. “I don’t use no ice. It thwarts my drink, you know.” She fished the ice out of her cup as I marveled at her words. When will I be good enough with the language to say that ice thwarts my drink? Some people just talk in poetry.

We sipped on the sorrel together, enjoying its sweetness and tartness, its underlying layer of cinnamon and clove. She nodded her head in approval. I asked her if many people buy her sorrel mix, whether people were curious about these little bags of flowers that look a bit like shriveled purple spiders.

She used to keep a bottle of the drink on her table for people to try, she said, until one day a customer upset her. “He just came and doused it up to his head, you know? I said, ‘That is a SAMPLE bottle! I have the word SAMPLE written right on it, and spoons for you to taste. How you gonna put that up to your big mouth?’” Then, having come to a conclusion, she said, “You need to have discipline. Give me five dollars for that bottle now.” He started complaining, saying that he was already going to buy a bag of the stuff. “You’ve got to have discipline,” she said to him, flatly. “Five dollars.” He ponied up. Lauren is that rare sort of person from whom people willingly accept tongue-lashings and chastisements, which is also what makes her approval so sweet.

“There’s a woman who sells goat products at the Ocean Springs market,” she then said to me, launching into a storytelling cadence. “She sells goat’s milk—I grew up on goat’s milk. I grew up sucking a goat’s udder.” She screwed up her face, miming exaggeratedly. “But her cheese…I am a cheese lover, but that cheese had mold on it in a few days. That tells me it wasn’t churned enough. I make cow’s butter like my mother showed me. You churn and churn it, and wash it and churn it until all the water is gone, not one bubble left and that butter won’t do anything wrong to you. You can eat it with your bare hands, just with a finger, like this,” and she took a finger, swiped it through an imaginary butter churn as big as her table, and sucked on it hungrily. “What I’m saying is that I can tell when things are done properly. And that’s why I said to you that your sorrel was done properly.” She smiled broadly. “Now say thank you.”

We had talked so long that the other tables were packing up. I looked around, suddenly panicked about dinner, my bag without half the things I came for. I laughed. “Thank you, Lauren.”

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