By MATT CRANE
Mississippians living in New York City can take the time to slow down and cool off with a fresh glass of sweet tea this Saturday, June 9 at the 33rd Annual New York Mississippi Picnic.
Held every year in Central Park, the New York City Mississippi Picnic gathers writers, musicians, educators and, most importantly, Southern cuisine for an afternoon celebrating the people and culture of Mississippi.
Governor Phil Bryant said he will be making his first trip to the picnic this year.
"(The picnic) is a great way to enjoy a taste of Mississippi food and experience the hospitality our state is known for first hand," Bryant said. "This event has been celebrating our state's vibrant culture in New York for 32 years, and Deborah and I look forward to becoming a part of this exciting tradition."
The theme of this year's picnic is Mississippi Stars Shine in 2012, a tribute to actors and producers from the state that received awards for their work in the past year including: the cast of The Help, for their Screen Actors Guild award; Morgan Freeman, for his lifetime achievement award given by the American Film Institute; Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones, who both received Honorary Academy Awards; and Jim Henson's The Muppets, who received a star on the hollywood walk of fame.
The picnic began in 1979 when a small group of native Mississippians living in New York City created an event to shine a positive light on their home state.
The efforts of this group also saw the creation of the New York Society for the Preservation of Mississippi Heritage.
Co-founder Rachel McPherson said the picnic allows attendees to reconnect with their home state.
"Those who are from Mississippi can reconnect to those things familiar from home," McPherson said. "Those who are curious about Mississippi can come to learn about the things Mississippians are most proud of — the food, the music, the culture and our people."
Native Mississippian Kenneth Nowell said he was drawn to the music he experienced at the event.
"The first time I went, Roosevelt Booba Barnes was playing, so raw out there under the sun," Nowell said. "I was still in my 'don't look back' phase of leaving the South, but, man, Barnes sent me back home in a big, big, big way."
Mandy Rogers said she and her husband Kary attended three picnics while living in New York City, and loved gathering together with other former Mississippians.
"It did make us miss home, and it was nice to have a literal taste of home brought to New York City," Rogers said. "It was the only place we found where we could get decent sweet tea since it was brought in from McCallister's."
John Marzalek said he was on hand at last year's picnic representing the Ulysses S. Grant Association.
"The sponsors asked myself and my wife to represent history within Mississippi," Marzalek said. "We loved representing the USGA, the Mitchell Memorial Library, MSU and history in the state."
Marzalek said he and his wife enjoyed meeting Mississippians living in the New York City area and talking about the university and the state.
"Our favorite memory concerns all the people praising MSU for being the host for Grant collection," he said. "Now that we are the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, we expect even more praise this year."
Musical entertainment will be provided by Mississippi bluesman Grady Champion, the New York City Slickers which features two native Mississippians, and Jon Paris.
Guests can expect plenty of southern flair with the meals provided as the Mississippi Catfish Cooking Team will prepare 500 pounds of fried catfish, 120 pounds of hushpuppies and McAlister's Deli will be on hand serving up their famous sweet tea.
Kenneth Nowell said the picnic reminded him of any other picnic one might find in a Mississippi park.
"The whole thing is pretty surreal, in a good way," he said. "It's a big catfish fry in a park that happens to be surrounded by New York."
The picnic begins at noon Saturday, June 9 and will run until 6 p.m. in Central Park. The location of the picnic will be Center Road at the 72nd Street and 5th Avenue entrance to the park, between Naumberg Bandshell and Sheep Meadow. Admission is free and all New Yorkers are invited to attend and see what Mississippi has to offer.