“Every square inch of the place has hundreds of stories.”
Malcolm White is describing Hal & Mal’s the legendary Jackson food, drink and music emporium named for White himself and his late brother, Hal.
“You could walk in Hal & Mal’s and point to a wall and I would have a dozen stories about all the things that’s happened there over the past 30 plus years.”
And that’s exactly how The Artful Evolution of Hal & Mal’s, an illustrated reminiscence of the restaurant’s history and characters, was born.
In 2010, on the night of the restaurant’s 25th anniversary celebration, artist Ginger Williams Cook came to Hal & Mal’s to see her husband play in one of the shows. Cook sat down and began drawing sketches of the surrounding dishes and artifacts. White came over to see her drawings, and from there the partnership took off.
“Malcolm picked up the book and he just had so many different stories to tell,” Cook said. For every sketch, White had a tale.
“Then he kind of threw it out there and said, ‘You know what, we’ve got to do a book together,’” she said.
Cook didn’t hesitate. A Jackson native, Cook is filled with memories of the Commerce Street landmark; as a youngster, she lied to her parents that she was sleeping over at a friend’s so she could see a band called Helmet. As an adult, Cook celebrated her engagement, had birthday parties and even mourned the loss of friends at Hal & Mal’s.
“It’s a really great, fun place to celebrate things, and it’s also had that mourning aspect too as a community for several beloved Jacksonians who passed away,” she said. “We even congregated there when Michael Jackson died. It’s just been a really special place to me.”
White said he and his brother had discussed writing a book for years.
“(Hal) was a master soup maker,” White said. “We had talked about, when he was alive, doing a Hal & Mal’s soup cookbook: I’d write all these stories and we’d use his recipes. But we never pulled the trigger. And then when he died, the idea morphed into a love story to him.”
In 2013, Hal White suffered a brain aneurysm. When Malcolm started writing the book, he intended it to be a history of the business, but it slowly became much more personal, especially regarding his brother.
“You know, if you sat down and started writing about the house you grew up in, it would end up being a memoir,” he said. “I mean, you might talk about the window treatment, or the yard, or your room, but before you finished writing it, it would be about your family, your friends.
“That was a tough task, making it personal but not too revealing. But it was good, it was a great exercise for me. In a way, it helped me to put closure around my brother’s passing, which was sudden, dramatic and unexpected. A lot of what I was trying to do was set the story straight, to make sure my brother was remembered well and got credit.”
Nearly six years after White saw Cook’s sketches, the two finally began putting ink and paint to paper. University Press of Mississippi welcomed the idea and agreed to publish.
“I thought it was a great idea for what Malcolm wanted to accomplish,” said Craig Gill, director of University Press of Mississippi. “He’s a storyteller, and we wanted to capture his voice. It’s a book about a restaurant, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a history of Jackson, it’s a history of Mississippi literature and art a lot of different things.
“It’s a very purposeful combination of art and words, and it’s a combination that really captures the spirit of (Hal & Mal’s),” he added.
Over the years, the venue became a consistent stop for well-known musical artists, including classic acts like The Temptations and Albert King, as well as newer performers such as The Strokes.
“(Ginger) had a totally different take on it than I did,” White said. “So like, she remembered Snoop Dogg playing there, and for me, I wanted to focus on Willie Dixon.”
Two years later, the book published. On Wednesday night, Lemuria Books in Jackson held a signing and Q&A event with White and Cook, where family members and longtime patrons came to celebrate the new work.
“All those different rooms have different memories of different people, people who have been essential to my life,” said Gay Reynolds, a former Jacksonian who came from Montgomery, Ala., to attend the event. “It’s like a family.”
“This is a big piece of history for Jackson. I’m just so glad that somebody took the time to capture it,” said Carol Puckett, a Jacksonian who has been frequenting the restaurant since it opened in 1985. “I have had a lot of life experiences there. A lot of the people in this room (at Lemuria) are people I’ve met there or marched in Malcolm’s parade with.”
White plays many roles in Jackson besides a restaurateur; he is the executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, and, in addition to promoting the book, he is planning his 35th annual St. Paddy’s Parade this weekend, which he has since dedicated to Hal.
This was Cook’s first book as an illustrator, but her previous work has been featured in national campaigns. She said she enjoyed this process, especially working with White.
“The best part on my end was that Malcolm trusted me as an elite illustrator and gave me the freedom to do my thing,” she said. “He’s not even a local treasure, Malcolm White is a state treasure. He is beloved.”
White said he already has more book ideas he hopes to collaborate on with Cook.