In a place like Jackson, Mississippi, there are thousands of stories to be told. It’s a town that’s lived many lives - from Louis LeFleur’s trading post to a hotbed for the Civil Rights Movement to the current growth and renaissance we’re seeing today. Jackson’s story has continued to unfold and live on through its many storytellers and dreamers. Malcolm White is not only a thread through the fabric of Jackson’s story, but his own Hal & Mal’s often happens to be the setting for local lore.
While his reputation as a local celebrity, founder of the St. Paddy’s Day parade, and godfather of downtown culture precedes him, Malcolm’s story didn’t start at that celebrated brick building downtown. It started long before that, with an active culinary childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast alongside his late brother Hal. “I am lucky that I’ve gotten to live a lot of lives,” says Malcolm, who started his career at a computer start-up in California. When he decided that wasn’t the path for him, he found himself working as an assistant manager in a New Orleans French Quarter hotel – an experience he credits with a whole lot of learning. “I learned to keep an open mind to whatever may be next.”
In the early 1980s, Malcolm was running downtown Jackson’s George Street Grocery restaurant and felt that downtown needed a bigger live music venue. Hal was working for the Glenn family at their restaurant, Paul’s, on Highway 80 and the two started scheming. “We talked about our dream for a long time,” remembers Malcolm. “We collected all kinds of stuff for the restaurant and had a singular idea. We wanted to be the gathering place in downtown Jackson. We didn’t want to be anywhere else and really felt it was part of our personal mission to revitalize downtown.”
The two worked tirelessly on their time off from their jobs to create and curate what would become Jackson’s beloved Hal & Mal’s. Nearly 35 years ago, Hal and Malcolm planted their roots in an old freight depot for the GM&N and New Orleans Great Northern Railroad on the east side of State Street, to live out their dream. And live it out they did.
Now, we get to dive deep into the story that would become the White brothers’ legacy in Malcolm’s newly-released book, The Artful Evolution of Hal & Mal’s, a collaboration with local artist Ginger Williams Cook. “We knew full well that downtown would revitalize, but we knew we may not live to see it happen,” says Malcolm. “Hal didn’t get to see it. But, people always return to the core. They leave, they come back, but they always come back. He believed it would happen and it is.”
In 2010, Malcolm stumbled on another local dreamer--artist Ginger Williams Cook. The serendipitous clash happened at Hal & Mal’s, of course, where most good things do. Ginger, a Jackson native, returned home after college and Hal & Mal’s quickly became her local hangout with friends. At the establishment’s 25thanniversary party, where 25 bands would perform, Ginger sat waiting for her husband’s band to play. “I challenged myself to sketch all night,” she recalls. “I was sketching the bar with all of the festive decorations when Malcolm walked by. He pointed out the light fixtures and told me they were from the Green Derby on Highway 80.” The Green Derby had been a fixture in Ginger’s childhood.
As Ginger and Malcolm talked, stories kept flowing, bringing to light the establishment’s great storytelling tradition. “That place is seasoned,” says Ginger. “Every single corner tells a story.” The two decided they should do a book together, but the idea wasn’t revisited until shortly after Hal passed three years later. “We knew we had to make it happen.”
Ginger’s illustrations, coupled with Hal’s recipe cards, serve as the platter on which legacy is served. Ginger used watercolor and gouache on textured paper to recreate scenes familiar to any Hal & Mal’s regular, including Velvet Elvis, a heaping plate of red beans and rice, and that famous checkered floor.
Another perfect visual is Hal’s recipe cards. “I had long wanted to do a book with Hal of his soup recipes,” says Malcolm. “He and I talked about it at length. I had notes and an interview I did with him. We got busy and it just never happened.” When Hal unexpectedly passed away in 2013, he left behind a gaping hole in the entire Jackson community, but also in his brother. “I was remorseful that we never saw that book through. This one is a love letter to my brother.”
In it, Malcolm tells stories about their grandparents and their cooking, an African-American community college cafeteria cook who was instrumental in shaping their love of food, and the time John Grisham and Willie Morris wouldn’t leave Hal & Mal’s, so Malcolm just gave them the keys. “I wanted to capture these stories for my family,” says Malcolm. “Otherwise, they would have vanished.”
“Hal would have loved this book, but he would have thought it was crazy,” laughs Malcolm. “He could talk about that soup all day long, though. There’s no question he would have appreciated the book, but he certainly would have challenged me on my recollection of things. His passing was the fuel to get this going. I pored over photos and stories, which helps keep his memory in the forefront of my mind. This book is only a tiny snippet of his legacy.”
The Arful Evolution of Hal & Mal’s is available at Lemuria Books.