Ole Miss fans figured it out a long time ago. Good football teams and great quarterbacks come and go, but an excellent picnic spread in the Grove never disappoints.
The rest of us are catching on. Food is the new football. Me and my remote control used to live in ESPN Land. We hung out with Boomer, Matt, Tom, Dan, Sterling, Mike, Jimmy, and lantern-jawed Bill Cowher. We talked about Tom and Peyton and "length" and "athleticism" and the fine points of the nickel D. We lived for the play of the day and those lists of the 50 greatest of all time.
Something happened. My wife set the remote on Channel 69, miles and miles from ESPN Land, in a place called the Food Network. The superstars were perky Rachael Ray, blabby Paula Deen, gorgeous Giada De Laurentiis, spiky Guy Fieri, and Memphians Pat and Gina Neely. Every time I came home, the Barefoot Contessa was smiling at me and whipping up a tasty plate of something or other for her grateful slouch of a husband and, vicariously, for me and the wife.
Last weekend, we crossed the Rubicon, reached the tipping point, made the break. It helped that our favorite football teams, Michigan and Tennessee, recipients of our children and our treasure, lost and did it nearly simultaneously. Michigan's loss was especially painful, because it clearly won't be the last one this year and the weather in Ann Arbor was cold and rainy. Half the crowd in their maize-colored slickers looked like they would much rather have been warm and cozy inside somewhere eating a corned beef sandwich from the famous Zingerman's Deli.
As for us, we were pigging out on a tasty pork shoulder from Corky's and a side of homemade slaw, so the pain of defeat was, well, practically painless. At the party we went to that night, nobody was talking about UT's blocked field goals or Michigan's demise. Why would they when there was a dining-room table heaped with a spread of baked cheeses, cakes, sausages, and dips that would have made Martha proud? When the talk turned to movies, Where the Wild Things Are was widely panned but foodie-favorite Julie & Julia was still getting raves.
On Sunday, the lower channels were packed with pro football from noon to nearly midnight, but it was too pretty to stay inside and the Titans were off and, so far this year, awful. While the NFL was drumming up fans by playing a game in London, we were wondering what David Thornton, the executive chef at Miss Cordelia's, would do with a piece of Alaskan salmon we had given him to cook for three couples. He did not disappoint us, burying the salmon under a pile of apple salsa and resting it on a bed of parsnips. The man deserves his own cooking show, as do the estimable food bloggers for this and other publications. In the age of YouTube, they could instantly save us from the stultifying boredom of those political talking heads, preachers, and sales pitches in the television ghetto between Fox and ESPN where WKNO and WYPL deliver what passes for local programming.
On Monday Night Football, the Washington Redskins were featured despite their losing record. The Washington Post reported that morning that the Redskins are failing to sell out their stadium for the first time in years. They lost again, and the game reportedly was a bore.
But what a night it was on the Food Network! You should have seen the battle of the Dr. Seuss cakes in the form of Horton, the Grinch, and the Cat in the Hat. The suspense was unbearable when the Cat in the Hat cake had to go back into the kitchen for repairs — and under the 15-minute rule, no less! If they had dropped that sucker, it would have been all over. Talk about a clutch performance. It was better than the battle of the Iron Chefs.
An hour later, Guy Fieri was in Cleveland, where a grill cook was preparing smoked salmon BLTs and barbecue nachos. The artistry was amazing, the commentary superb, the photography almost pornographic in detail.
I was struck by a sudden desire for more salmon and, against all logic, a road trip to Cleveland.
Final score: Food, 4; Football, nothing.
Elsewhere in this issue, we Flyer staffers offer our two cents' worth to the new mayor. Dick Hackett and Jim Rout are former mayors who moved out of Memphis after leaving office but whose political instincts are still sharp. What do they think the next city mayor should do?
By way of introduction, Hackett, 60, is head of the Children's Museum of Memphis. He was elected mayor of Memphis in 1982 in a special election when he was just 33 years old. It was the end of the era of white men in suits. The majority of city council members were white males old enough to be his father, and none of them had active mayoral aspirations.
Rout, 67, is head of the Mid-South Fair. He was elected mayor of Shelby County in 1994 as the consensus Republican candidate in a crowded field of Democrats and independents in a Republican landslide year. He succeeded charismatic Bill Morris and preceded lawyerly A C Wharton, the odds-on favorite in Thursday's election.
The political landscape is different today. We have more mayoral churn than ever — probably three different city mayors in three months this year and possibly three different county mayors between next week and next September. We have more media exposure, debates, and commentary than ever. But fewer people care. Both Hackett and Rout predict Wharton will win and that the turnout could be half the 254,000 who voted in the 1982 special election. Memphians, says Hackett, "are apathetic about their own city." To Rout, Willie Herenton's resignation was the big story, and the election is anticlimactic.
Flyer: What advice would you give the next city mayor?
Hackett: "I think the interim mayor has the authority to start over and create their own staff and their own identity. Normally, you want to be aggressive with an abundance of caution. But these are not ordinary times. I had to be cautious. I was young, and if you really mishandled something you didn't have time to recoup. Now I don't think we have the time. It has to be a bold two years. We have to be aggressive, and I think that will be rewarded."
Rout: "If there was ever a time in the history of Memphis that we need a particularly strong vision, it is now. It is not business as usual. The problems of the economy, taxes and finance, crime, and school dropouts going to prison call for a clear vision of where somebody thinks they can take this community."
What is the easiest mistake for a new mayor to make?
Hackett: "Getting too wrapped up in the fanfare of being the mayor. Some people just can't handle that."
Rout: "I had 16 years on the county commission. I knew the budget inside out, but I had to learn to think like a mayor and not like a commissioner, to shift gears."
What was the best advice you got?
Hackett: "It came from [former Memphis mayor] Wyeth Chandler. Keep your sense of humor and be yourself. Don't let the job or the people around you change you. It sounds simple, but it's easy to allow that job to consume you in such a way that you try to be everything to everybody. I did not like the entourage part of being mayor. I was a husband and a dad too."
Rout: "You will never ever be as popular again as you are the night of the election, because when you start showing leadership and making decisions there are going to be people who are not going to go along with you."
Does consolidation have a chance in the next few years?
Hackett: "No. I don't think it can be pulled off. You almost have to write two years off because the unknown is the next county mayor and where they will stand on the issue."
Rout: "Not in the next few years or in my lifetime. As long as the law requires it to carry in both the city and the county outside the city of Memphis, it is going to be very difficult before credibility is reestablished. It is a huge waste of time and resources to continue to deal with this issue at this time given the other problems that we have."
It's becoming clearer every week that by his fourth term as mayor of Memphis, Willie Herenton was in it for the money.
In May 2004, five months into his fourth term and embattled on many fronts, Herenton asked finance director Joseph Lee to process his request for a payment of $72,000 for 108 "carryover vacation days not taken during the last term due to the nature of my responsibilities as mayor for the city of Memphis."
If you're scoring, that's 27 days of unused vacation a year for a mayor who boasted of being on the job every day and never taking vacations, although many Memphians would have loved to have sent him on an extended one.
Herenton made similar requests each year for the next five years to be paid amounts ranging from $7,333 to $14,291 for unused vacation. In all, he collected $132,000 in extra pay on top of his salary.
All of this and more came to light and to saturation television coverage Tuesday at the Memphis City Council, including copies of the former mayor's W-2 Wage and Tax Statements to the Internal Revenue Service. It's a new day at City Hall for public disclosure, and the trend is likely to continue no matter who wins the special election this month. The lights are on, and the cat is out of the bag.
Herenton's W-2 forms show that he earned $139,148 in 2003. In 2004, he bumped that to $230,853; in 2005 to $165,428; in 2006 to $169,672; in 2007 to $171,019; and in 2008 to $184,143. It is not clear why the amounts vary beyond the sum of the mayor's salary and payments for unused vacation or what the other sources of income were.
Herenton's fourth term was a turning point for the worse. He kicked off the year with an angry speech at a New Year's breakfast. He denounced members of the City Council. He openly worried about an FBI investigation of an MLGW bond deal. The Commercial Appeal and Jack Sammons, then a council member and now chief administrative officer for interim mayor Myron Lowery, called for a Watergate-style investigation. In June 2004, Herenton succeeded on his second try in replacing Herman Morris with Lee, only weeks after Lee, as finance director, signed off on Herenton's vacation-days bonus.
And the mayor, who had trounced John Willingham three to one in the low-turnout 2003 election, apparently thought he was underpaid. The burr under his saddle was Morris. Herenton appointed Morris in 1997 and recommended that his salary be increased to more than $200,000. It was set slightly below that. Former councilman Rickey Peete proposed raising the mayor's salary to $200,000, but the council, including Lowery, balked.
In 2003, Morris and Herenton fell out and the mayor declined to reappoint him. In the aftermath, Herenton disclosed the details of what he called the "vulgar" severance package Morris proposed for himself, saying it was more appropriate for a corporate CEO than a public employee.
What the public and the City Council did not know until this week was that while Herenton was pointing his finger at Morris, he was secretly padding his own bank account with vacation pay. The payments to the mayor and CAO Keith McGee were known only to the finance director and a few others but did not come before the council for approval.
"I'm sure this is not the case, but if you wanted to hide it from scrutiny you could not have done a better job," Councilman Jim Strickland told personnel director Lorene Essex and finance director Roland McElrath, who were not in those jobs in 2004 when the payments began but did sign off on the later ones.
Herenton was not the first mayor to sweeten his paycheck, although he is apparently the first to seek it retroactively while he was in office and only for himself and his CAO. Former mayor Dick Hackett got paid for unused vacation days after he left office in 1991. Hackett collected $50,000 for vacation days plus $1,269 in "bonus day" pay and $20,623 for unused sick leave. His division directors and chief administrative officer got smaller payments. Shelby County government adopted a policy of paying the mayor a salary and nothing else beginning with Bill Morris some 30 years ago.
In a Monday editorial titled "Sucker Punch," The Washington Post said the Herenton-Cohen 2010 congressional race "gets ugly" and Willie Herenton is "jumping into the gutter with low-road tactics that divide rather than enlighten."
The editorial took Shelby County commissioner and Herenton supporter Sidney Chism to task for saying the 9th Congressional District seat "was set aside for people who look like me. It wasn't set aside for a Jew or a Christian. It was set aside so that blacks could have representation." The Post says "someone forgot to tell the district's free-thinking voters" who sent Cohen to Washington in 2006 and 2008.
Or maybe them big-city Yankee editorial writers ought to take off their rose-colored glasses. Chism got sucker-punched for plain speaking. If his statement is not literally correct, it is essentially correct, and history backs him up.
Whatever it is today, Memphis was no racial utopia in the events leading to the tangled creation of the 9th district.
Race has been at the core of every major Memphis redistricting, annexation, and runoff-election decision for at least 50 years. The 9th is the only district in Tennessee located within one county and the only one ever to have a black representative. It was eliminated in 1973 based on the 1970 census.
In the 1974 congressional election, white flight from school busing, the Watergate scandal, and a big increase in black voter registration allowed Harold Ford Sr. to beat a white Republican opponent by only 774 votes out of 135,000 votes. A tweak of the district lines here or there and it might have been different. The district was recreated as a majority-black district with a preponderance of Democrats in 1983 based on the 1980 census.
Prior to Ford's election, it was common knowledge that in a racially mixed city like Memphis, elections could be rigged in favor of white candidates by carefully drawing district lines, selective annexation, and runoff elections. In 1966, civil rights pioneer Vasco Smith, who died this week, said, "We don't stand a ghost of a chance in this town when it comes to running at large." Eventually, the federal courts agreed and, in the process, officially acknowledged the impact of racial bloc voting. In 1991, at the urging of the U.S. Justice Department, a judge in Memphis struck down runoff elections for the specific reason that they penalized black candidates in mayoral and at-large city council elections. Which was what blacks had been saying for decades.
The immediate beneficiary, of course, was Herenton, who won the 1991 election with 49.4 percent. An indirect beneficiary was Steve Cohen, who won the 2006 Democratic primary with about one third of the vote before winning the general election with 60 percent.
The former mayor and educator knows better than anyone the impact of race on elections, annexations, housing patterns, and public school enrollment. As a principal and superintendent, he witnessed white flight from the school system and did what he could to slow it down by supporting optional schools. He also took the heat for closing several black schools.
He believed in integration, and he knew public support would dissipate for an all-black system. In one of his first interviews as mayor in 1992, he told me the same thing about the city as a whole, if it went the way of Detroit, and he correctly predicted that white enrollment in the schools would drop below 10 percent. It is now 7 percent.
Herenton the unifier has been forgotten by most people, including, it often seems, himself. His horrible decisions and word choices had a lot to do with it.
In an interview quoted in The New York Times, which like The Washington Post has taken a fancy to this story, he said "to know Steve Cohen is to know that he really does not think very much of African Americans" and that Cohen "has played the black community well."
Cohen fired back in a letter to the Times published last week, noting that he was reelected in 2008 with nearly 80 percent, foreshadowing, he wrote, the election of Barack Obama.
"We've come a long way in Memphis, and ours is a story of post-racial politics."
We'll see, and the national media will be watching.