A writer, scholar and artist as well as the first and still foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great but who himself remains shadowed today. A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, we should remember Mitcham well. His Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretention alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, written with the same gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts as fully, but as his fellow Mississippian, Creole Gumbo strikes much closer to my heart.
As an artist, Mitcham printed his own woodcuttings, harnessed watercolor and dabbled in oils. As a man of boundless spirit and generosity, he sent one of his paintings to a writer in Oxford he very much admired, and received this letter in response. It’s not known if the painting ever did hang in the Buie Museum, but the painting is still at Rowan Oak. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, pointing out the date (1955) as well as the elements of the painting (a Tokyo newspaper, a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a pipe) said, “Mitcham probably painted this to mark the publication of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches by Hokuseido Press in April, and Faulkner traveled to Japan that August on a goodwill tour.”
Patricia Neely-Dorsey is a 1982 graduate of Tupelo High School. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Boston University and is the author of two books of poetry: Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia and My Magnolia Memories and Musings. She calls both books ‘a celebration of the South and things southern’. After living for almost 20 years in Memphis working in the mental health field, she returned to Tupelo in 2007, where she lives now with her husband James and her son Henry.
“I consider ‘Southern Life’ my signature poem because it pretty much sums up the feel and theme of my collection of poetry. I write about the simple, basic elements of southern life that to me make it beautiful and unique. I believe it’s the small things that make the southern way of life so special and endearing, and food is one of those things. You can’t talk about the South and southern life without mentioning food; it’s at the top of the list of its most distinguishing features. During my speaking engagements, I often joke about the fact that I didn’t know how obsessed I was with food until I started reading my own poems. Almost every other poem is about food or mentions food in some way, but in the South food is a part of almost everything that we do, and the way that food is prepared, used and served in here south is like none other. It has definitely left its mark on the taste buds of all Americans. If you talk about ‘home cooking’ from anywhere, North, East, South or West, it will almost certainly be a reflection of Southern-style food preparation.
When I was writing ‘Southern Life’, I wanted to include references that were unmistakably southern. I think that I had at first chosen to use places like Beale Street and Bourbon Street and also references to music and a few music icons in a couple of the lines, but, it didn’t seem to be exactly what I wanted to say. Then, for some reason, I thought of my favorite food: fried okra, which is so very southern. Once I mentioned it, I got on a roll and couldn’t stop. I knew that everyone would relate to the fact that in the south, we fry almost anything, .and LIKE almost anything fried.
Because my books are made up, primarily of childhood memories, I have an array of poems in my books that describe food preparations and customs that are quickly becoming or have become a thing of the past. These include ‘Shelling Peas’ ‘Hog Killing Time’ and ‘Making Cracklings’. The poem ‘Country Breakfast’ is one of my favorites. It brings back fond memories of the amazing country breakfasts of my childhood growing up in the country that are almost completely a thing of the past. It speaks of fried chicken from a personal coop, squirrel from a recent hunt trip and thick home-cured bacon from the smokehouse. These are things that I will never forget. They are part of a cultural heritage in the South that I feel should be preserved. I try to do just that, through my poems.”
You can find more of Patricia’s works at: http://www.patricianeelydorsey.webs.com/
If you want a glimpse of Southern life,
Come close and walk with me;
I’ll tell you all the simple things,
That you are sure to see.
You’ll see mockingbirds and bumblebees,
Magnolia blossoms and dogwood trees,
Caterpillars on the step,
Wooden porches cleanly swept;
Watermelons on the vine,
Strong majestic Georgia pines;
Rocking chairs and front yard swings,
June bugs flying on a string;
Turnip greens and hot cornbread,
Coleslaw and barbecue;
Fried okra, fried corn, fried green tomatoes,
Fried pies and pickles, too.
There’s ice cold tea that’s syrupy sweet,
And cool, green grass beneath your feet;
Catfish nipping in the lake,
And fresh young boys on the make.
You’ll see all these things
And much, much more,
In a way of life that I adore.
A real country po’folk’s breakfast
Is in these days quite rare,
It’s certainly not your typical
Bacon and eggs type affair.
There’d be crispy fried chicken,
With all the parts there to eat;
The usual ones represented,
Plus the neck, back and feet.
There might be some country ham,
But not the thin sterile kind;
It’s the thick, salty slices
From the smokehouse you’ll find.
If you’re lucky, there’s rabbit,
From a recent hunt trip;
With juicy, brown gravy
That drips from your lips.
There would probably be rice,
With sugar and butter of course;
And big chunky biscuits
That could choke any horse.
What goes in the middle,
Is anyone’s guess;
Some molasses or syrup
Would sure pass the test.
But, most want preserves
From the cook’s vast store;
From the past summer’s canning,
In flavors galore.
The milk would be powdered,
And straight from a box;
There’s likely no juice,
’til opportunity knocks.
But, we all know one thing That’s sure to be had;
It’s a jug full of Kool-AId,
And the flavor is Red.
“Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia-A Life in Poems, a celebration of the south and things southern”; “Meet Mississippi Through Poetry, Prose and The Written Word”