In "New York Days," Willie Morris describes his adventure as the youngest editor of Harper's Magazine, "I came to the city and it changed my life...The New York days!... they lifted me far out of myself: the stunning cosmos of the city at a time in which everyone seemed to know everyone else and where everything of importance seemed to happen first, its magic and majesty as epicenter of the nation and the world, its interlocking literary and cultural and political and social milieux, its glamorous parties and beautiful women and dialogue sparkling with adroit repartee, its clever bon mots and full-blooded lunacies, its teeming adventure and perilous fun, its monumental ambition, its aura then of idealism and titillation and tempestuous feasibility, the hard work and the gratification."

Sounds like a good place for a picnic.

Every year Mississippians make a pilgrimage to join Magnolia State expats and Empire State hosts at the New York Mississippi Picnic in the park. Organizers celebrated the 29th anniversary of this Central Park event on June 7.

New York City pulls the adventurous of every state, including Mississippi's literary royalty. William Faulkner worked as a bookstore clerk and lived in Greenwich Village from which myths of drunken misdeeds still echo in city tours today. Willie Morris conquered New York society. Eudora Welty studied advertising at Columbia University in New York and infused her social schedule with the jazz cultures of Harlem and weekly Sunday visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The picnic, founded by Rachel McPherson in 1979 as the "Way Up North In Mississippi Picnic," is held annually in Eudora's old stomping grounds: the East Meadow of Central Park near Manhattan's Upper East Side, just south of Harlem and about a dozen blocks north of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

McPherson explains the event's genesis on the picnic's web site (, "I felt that people in New York had negative ideas about people from Mississippi, and people from outside New York had a terrible image of Central Park." She says homesick Mississippi expats wanted a way to network with fellow Mississippians in NYC, while improving the image of the city to Mississippi - and of Mississippi to the world.

Adrian Benepe, the Commissioner of New York City's Department of Parks & Recreation represented Mayor Michael Bloomberg this year and welcomed Gov. Haley Barbour. Benepe said a New York mayor makes foreign trips to Ireland and Israel to court constituents, and likewise, he is always glad to see Mississippi's governor make the trip to Central Park.

Gov. Barbour introduced Mississippi's tourism ambassador, Miss Hospitality Rebekah Staples, whom he also praised as "a great politician" (she serves as Barbour's deputy press secretary). Former Barbour deputy chief of staff Jim Perry and his wife Jordan, recent transplants to New York, visited with old friends and former Mississippi Treasurer Marshall Bennett worked the crowd as well.

Sen. Roger Wicker shook hands, shared catfish and joined the Ole Miss contingent in their Hotty Toddy chant for the New York alumni group photograph. Chancellor Robert Khayat of Ole Miss, Interim Mississippi State University President Dr. Vance Watson, and USM President Dr. Martha Saunders all made the trip to visit with alumni as well.

Simmons Farm Raised Catfish from Yazoo City provided 360 pounds of catfish and 80 pounds of hushpuppies; McAlister's Deli supplied their famous sweet tea by the glass and gallon to the thirsty throngs. There was Mississippi art and music and plenty of sitting in the shade (it seems someone invited Mississippi's summer weather, too). The annual watermelon seed spitting competition is a crowd favorite. One year the competition featured a spit-off between Congressman Sonny Montgomery and New York Mayor Ed Koch.

I visited with Brian Floyd who grew up in Rankin County and Clinton and now pursues his acting career in New York City. Willie Morris might call him a "Dixie exile" who living in "the Big Cave" that is New York City might, as Willie said of himself, "die of my own heat and curiosity and cunning." Floyd has earned strong notices "off off-Broadway," written and produced several plays, appeared in a few films and, to pay the bills, landed a national Budweiser commercial. He sees the stereotypes against Mississippi every day but says, "I consider myself kind of like an ambassador for Mississippi here. I tell people how great the state is and sometimes they say, 'yeah, but you left.'"Floyd points to his heart and says, "I haven't left; I'm always home. I just live in New York."

If you're looking for a reason to visit New York City in the summer, try to schedule it around the picnic. It might be 1,200 miles away, but once a year, even the New York subway can provide a trip home to folks like Floyd and McPherson, because even in Central Park, Mississippi is a place in the heart.

Brian Perry of Jackson, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at