Food for the Soul

Whitehall, Welty and the mint julep: The quintessential Southern drink — with a twist.

Story Rufus Ward

Whitehall, a Greek Revival home listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the South Columbus (Miss.)Historic District, has long been known for its hospitality. Built by James Walton Harris in 1843, it was the home of the related Harris, Hardy and Billups families for more than 100 years. The home’s basement served as a hospital during the Civil War, and during World War II the basement was again used — this time as a servicemen’s “hang-out” for Columbus Army Air Field personnel. Its walls were graced with original Walt Disney Studio production art, autographed “Happy Landings at Whitehall — Walt Disney.”

Guests who have been entertained there have ranged from Confederate generals to novelist and social activist Upton Sinclair. Photographs taken at the home have appeared in publications such as Life magazine and The London Illustrated News.

Whitehall is now the home of Joe and Carol Boggess, who have lovingly restored it and continued its tradition of hospitality. In the 1950s, Joe’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Julian Boggess, purchased the home from the Hardy family.

It is not for its hospitality, however, for which Whitehall has been nationally heralded. It is for that quintessential Southern beverage, the mint julep. The recipe for the “Whitehall Mint Julep” can be found in John T. Edge’s book of Southern culture and food, A Gracious Plenty, and many other books and collections of Southern recipes. It was even included in a May 2010 USA Today article.

The “Whitehall Mint Julep” recipe first appeared in print in Eudora Welty’s 1939 interview with Mrs. T. C. Billups (Lenore Hardy). In the fall of that year Welty came to Columbus as part of an Associated Press and travel writers’ tour. The first Columbus pilgrimage was to be held the following spring, and Mrs. Billups, a pilgrimage founder and chairman, was helping host the writers’ tour. The writers were entertained at her family home, Whitehall, where they were served the “Whitehall Mint Julep.”

Eudora Welty then interviewed Mrs. Billups about the drink, and the story of that mint julep circulated nationwide, making newspapers such as the Dec. 26, 1939, edition of the Detroit (Mich.) Times. Interestingly, Welty wrote under the name of “Prudence Penny.”

According to Welty: “A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magic ingredient, the mint julep. In the fine old city of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in Whitehall, the home of Mr. and Mrs. T. C. Billups. ‘The drink is refreshing,’ says Mrs. Billups, needlessly enough, ‘and carries with it all of the charm of the Old South when life was less strenuous than it is today; when brave men and beautiful women loved and laughed and danced the hours away, but in their serious moments which were many, aspired to develop minds and souls that made them among the finest people this old world has known.’”

Lenore Billups was my grandmother and when she heard that I was going to attend Ole Miss she informed me: “If you are going to the University, then you must know the proper way to make a mint julep.” She was a graduate of Newcomb College in New Orleans where she had studied art, but my grandfather was an Ole Miss graduate. The recipe she gave me was identical to the “Whitehall Mint Julep” recipe she had given Eudora Welty in 1939, with one exception. She had told Welty that the proper way to serve a mint julep was in a “silver goblet, thoroughly chilled”; however, she told me simply to use a julep cup.

The recipe given to me by my grandmother as the old Whitehall Mint Julep recipe is:

• Dissolve sugar in water.
Bruise a mint leaf in a tablespoon of the sugar water then remove the leaf.
Fill the julep cup (or silver goblet) with crushed ice and add the tablespoon of mint and sugar water.
Fill the julep cup with good bourbon.
• Put in a sprig of mint and let stand until the julep cup is frosted.
Then “serve rapidly.”

Personally, I still prefer a mint julep served in a silver goblet. As Eudora Welty said in conclusion: “Who could ask for anything more?”