Nipping the Bud

The afternoon had been long, impeded by discoveries of even more cracks to caulk, more questions to quell, more smoke, more smiling. Now the sun was slatted on the wall, and he heard Mazie closing her office. She came through his door minutes later, a sheaf of files in her hand.

“This is the last of them,” she said. “Do you want me to take them to the bank?”

“No,” Clayton said. “I’ve got to go see Eddie later, just leave them here.” Mazie hesitated.

“Just leave them here,” Clayton repeated. “I’ll take care of them. And Mazie, you should know that I’ve decided to let you have that free time you’ve always wanted.”

“Free time?”

“Yes,” Clayton said. “Now that Jack is gone, I’ve decided to make some changes, and one of them is rewarding you for your service to the firm. You and Bud will be able to take those long fishing trips you’ve always wanted.”

Mazie looked at him steadily. “You’re firing me.”

“I’ll give you a nice severance check, and you have the retirement account Jack set up for you,” Clayton said. “Things are changing, and we need someone who knows all these new gadgets we’re using better than you do.”

“You won’t get away with it. I know things,” Mazie said.

“I know things, too,” Clayton said. “I know lots of things, Mazie. Like I know that Jack kept Bud out of prison fifteen years ago, and I know why. There’s no statute of limitation on murder, you know. I have the evidence.”

“It was an accident,” Mazie said, too quickly. She knew that Clayton would have the facts that Bud fired the shots that ended the woman’s life, and shots fired with malice and deliberation. Jack, only Jack, could have kept Bud out of prison, and he did somehow, before Clayton had joined the firm. Mazie didn’t even know that Clayton knew about it, but now that he did, and now that he intended to use it to keep Mazie at home and silent, she set her mouth.

“Then I’ll go,” she said. “You’re a bastard, Clayton Isley, a shit-splattered son-of-a-bitch. Your buddy Ward Mason is in the conference room. He said you told him to come in the back door. If Jack were here . . .”

Clayton pounded his fist on the desk. “Jack is NOT here! Jack is DEAD! I’m in charge now, and things are going to be different around here.” He sat back in his chair, breathing heavily and loosened his tie. “Go home, Mazie. And don’t forget what I said about Bud.”

Mazie left, her face set in fury and resignation. Clayton took the files she had been holding, the last of Jack Delancy’s records, and tossed them into the smoldering incinerator out back as he had done the rest of them.

He walked down the hall to the conference room. At the end of the table sat a wiry muscular man dressed in a threadbare jacket and a badly-pressed shirt. His watery blue eyes were set in a long face topped with thinning blond hair. His hands held a cigarette that wobbled slightly over the ashtray.

“Hey, Clayton!” the man said. His smile was wide, and his teeth were large, long and bright.

Clayton walked to a cabinet against the wall and poured a generous shot of whiskey into a glass. He sat the drink and bottle on the table next to the man and watched as he gulped down the drink, wiped his mouth with a hairy hand and poured another.

“How’ve you been, Ward?”

“Great! Great!  I got a new car last week, found a place down on Hooper Road, and I’m going to start fixing up the cabins on the lake, run the snakes out, do some rewiring, fix the plumbing, you know.”

“That’s just fine,” Clayton said. “You know, Ward, since Jack died . . . “

“Loved Jack!” Ward said. “He knew that boy was all about a bunch of lies, sayin’ I did all those things. Hell, I got kids of my own, you know. Love kids.”

Clayton looked at him. “Well, I believe that, Ward, I really do. You know, Frances has been a total mess since Jack died.”

“I can see why,” Ward said, nodding. “Losing a husband like that and them both in the prime of life.”

“She’s been having a lot of problems,” Clayton said. “We’ve had to keep her under a lot of sedation. I talked to a psychiatrist in Birmingham and he said it’s best that she goes to a place where she can get some rest, a private hospital he runs up in Gardendale. My wife and I are going to take care of the little girl, but the boy, well, he needs attention, and that’s why I asked you here.”

Ward’s smile faltered. “What do you mean, Clayton?”

“Well, a boy his age, he’ll be fourteen next week, a boy his age needs a man in his life, and I just don’t have the time,” Clayton said. “Now, I’ve arranged for him to be sent away to school, to a school up in North Carolina, not really a military academy, just an all-boys school that stresses discipline. But I think it would be a good idea for him to get to the country for a while before he goes, and I think you ought to take him with you up to the lake. Take him fishing, get some good fresh air. It’ll only be for a month or so.”

Ward licked his lips. “Clayton, you know, that boy in Jackson who got me into trouble . . .”

“I know all about the boy in Jackson,” Clayton said. He also knew about the boy in Mobile, the boy in Greenwood and the one in Memphis. He had seen the photographs Ward had taken, the looks in the boys’ eyes, and he knew that if it weren’t for Jack, Ward would probably be dead; either shot by a father or killed in prison.

“But Frances . . .”

“Frances doesn’t need to know,” Clayton said. “Nobody needs to know but you and me. I’ll bring him to you myself next Friday to stay with you at the lake. You can go fishing, take the boat out, skinny-dippin’ . . . He’s a good-looking kid. You two should have a good time together. I’ll pick him up in six weeks, in time for school.”

“Nobody’s gonna know?” Ward asked.

“Nope,” Clayton said. “I’ll pay you, of course. Cash. I’ll arrange for you to pick it up at the bait shop on Cane Creek.” He took out a manila envelope and pushed it across the table.
“Here’s some photos of him at the swimming pool.”

Ward opened the envelope. A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth. He replaced the photos and put the money in his jacket pocket. “Wonder if he’s a real redhead?”

Clayton looked at him. “I’m sure you’ll find out, Ward. Now you’d better go. Did you park at the supermarket like I told you?”

“Yeah, and I came down the alley.”

“Okay, I’ll see you Friday,” Clayton said. “Now get the hell out of here.”

Ward left. It was dusk. Clayton drew a cigar from his shirt pocket, lit it and leaned back in his chair. Sometimes, he thought, it isn’t enough just to kill a man.

Buttermilk Spread

At the Warehouse in Oxford, we had this prep guy who was from the outlaw boonies way out toward Pontotoc. Total stoner with a hot car and a girlfriend with a space between her teeth. He used to sell homegrown weed in the parking lot after he got off work in the afternoon. Before then, he mopped the floor, proofed the bread, switched out the soda canisters, and made a whipped spread with buttermilk and margarine.

I loved watching him do it. He’d crank up our big-ass Hobart with a perforated blade the size of a hubcap and start throwing one-pound blocks of margarine straight out of the cooler into the barrel-size bowl. The chunks made a whomp-bump racket until they began to soften. Then he’d start pouring in buttermilk, and the noise became a sliding hiss as the margarine and milk began to meld. The final product was a creamy, fluffy, flavorful spread the waiters served with warm loaves of bread on cute little wooden paddles.

We used margarine and low-fat buttermilk for economy, but butter and whole-milk buttermilk are worth the expense. Set your mixer on low speed; use the whip attachment. Begin adding softened butter one stick at a time. After the second stick is creamy, slowly begin adding buttermilk in a dribble. As the mixture begins to combine, turn up your mixer on high and toss in about a teaspoon of salt. You should be able to incorporate about a little over a half cup of buttermilk to a pound of butter. Refrigerate before serving.

About Waiting

Anyone who prides themselves on their patience and understanding should wait tables for a week or so to find out just how patient and understanding they really are.

Many people are notoriously insensitive to workers in the food service industry; just ask any waitperson, bartender or cook. Any given one of them doubtless has several stories to tell of rude and insensitive if not to say vulgar treatment at the hands of a patron. The business of food and drink is a service industry, and it’s no coincidence that the word service comes from the Latin root servus, meaning slave. The food industry trains people to be servile, to cater to customers (and management) in an overtly deferential way because so much of a restaurant’s livelihood depends on steady patronage. I’m not suggesting that anybody who works in the business is at the beck and call of every s.o.b. with enough money to buy a hamburger, but some people certainly seem to think so. These customers, either out of ignorance, stupidity, or a delusional sense of self-worth, will exhaust and demean a waiter, detracting not only from their own enjoyment of a meal but also (far more critically) from that of others.

In her autobiography, My Life as a Restaurant, Alice Brock, owner of Alice’s Restaurant, describes the situation well and offers a very human response:

I am often accused of being rude to customers. Well, it’s true, I am as rude as they are, only they don’t always realize their behavior is inhuman: after all, I am in a restaurant and THEY are hungry, THEY drove all the way from Florida, THEY just want a sandwich, THEY just want to see Alice, THEY just want to look around, and take a picture, get an autograph, use the bathroom, introduce me to their dog, who is named Alice, have a cup of coffee, SPEAK TO THE OWNER…because this food-covered lady in work boots, who is so rude, can’t possibly be the OWNER. I guess I have a temper…good! I won’t stand for being treated like a piece of public property or a freak and I will never allow a customer to get away with giving an employee a hard time. The customer is NOT always right.  Being a “service industry” makes people think we are just computerized slaves.

One of the high-lights of an evening is to hear of a customer bringing a waitress to tears…I rush out to the dining room, pull their plates off the table and point to the door: “OUT…OUT…GET OUT AND LEARN SOME MANNERS!” To try to please the “difficult” customer at the expense of my fellow workers is ridiculous. Some people just have an attitude. They upset the waiter or waitress, who in turn upsets me, who in turn upsets the whole evening. It’s not worth it to try to please or placate these bitter, unhappy people, better to put them out at the first sign of trouble. This is something I have to be there to do…it’s hard to tell or expect someone else to do it. Sometimes I’m wrong, or the waitress is wrong, but better to lose a customer than a co-worker. (p.119)

Ms. Brock is a notable exception, since most managerial-type people treat their waitstaff as expendable. And, to be fair, most people who eat out frequently learn how to deal courteously with waiters, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is a learning process. Nowadays, dining out is almost always coupled with another experience (a movie, a play or some other sort of public entertainment) but at one time dining out itself was often taken as a singular occasion to be enjoyed on its own merits rather than as an appendage to another event. This happy time was when restaurants were successful not merely on the basis of turnover, but more on the quality of the foods they offered, the comfortable atmosphere they maintained, and the genial clientele they accommodated. Great care was taken not only with the menu, which usually involved many courses designed to fit the season as well as the particular talents of the cooks and the general style of the restaurant itself, but also with the presentation, the service, the table, seating, lighting, and atmosphere. Such staging demanded a great deal of planning as well as much care in the execution.

I have seen some degree of return to this tradition, but it is still rare to find a restaurant that does not cater to some abominable god of expediency. I’ve often encountered difficulty when dining out and trying to take my time between one course and the next with a pause to have a bit of beverage and conversation because waitpersons tend to interrupt with an insistent, “Are you alright?” as if to say that by not yelling at them for not bringing the food immediately that they were falling down on their job. The reason for this is that waiters are programmed to turn over tables as quickly as possible and since most patrons have had the “20% tip” rule-of-thumb drummed into their heads waiters are eager to get the tip and get you out in order to get the next. Me, I tip as well as I can; just want you all to know that.

Waiting is dancing with  dialogue. I’ve known champion waiters from both sides of the kitchen doors, and I’ve been subject to the attentions of some world-class bartenders.  (Incidentally, bartenders, as a general rule,  just will not put up with a bunch of bullshit; trust me, I know.) Perhaps what I’m describing is simply an example of what is being called a decline in civility, but as Alice says, “Some people just have an attitude,” and in my book as well as hers such people require adjustment.

Pat Lamar’s Lasagna

When I was working at Audie Michael’s, a restaurant on the Square in Oxford (current site of the City Grocery), we became well-known for two items outside our regular menu. One was gumbo, and the other was lasagna. We ran both regularly as luncheon specials. Since we were basically an upscale burger joint, we didn’t do a lot of catering, usually only large take-out orders for regular customers. But one day Pat Lamar, a wealthy, socially prominent patron and later mayor of Oxford, sent in a messenger carrying a beautiful, knee-high (swear to God) McCarty bowl with a tapered bottom. My boss came waltzing into the kitchen with this huge piece of pottery and said, “Mrs. Lamar wants you to make lasagna in this for her party tonight.”

“Sure,” I said. “Is this oven-proof?” He looked at me like I’d hit him with a hammer. “What do you mean, oven-proof?” he asked. (He was a nice guy, just lacked focus.)

“Look,” I said. “I’m not about to take an expensive piece of pottery, fill it full of lasagna and bake it in an oven without knowing that it’s not going to shatter into seven hundred pieces.” Suddenly realizing the situation, he asked, “What are we gonna do?” (In my experience, this has been management’s basic reaction to anything that’s not in the manual.) “First thing, call her up and see if she’s baked in it before,” I said. A few minutes later he came back and said, “She’s never put it in the oven, but she thinks it will be fine.” I was skeptical. Even if the piece was insured, I didn’t want to have to clean up an oven full of lasagna and broken crockery. So I got on the phone and called Ron Dale, the top ceramics professor at Ole Miss.

“Jesse Lee,” he said, “To be honest with you, I do not know if it will withstand the heat or not. But the one thing not to do is to put a cool piece into a hot oven.”

So I took a deep breath and made lasagna. I filled the bowl with warm water to heat the ceramic up a bit, poured that out and filled it with swirled layers of meat, cheese, sauce, and noodles, all still very warm. The entire ordeal (which took two people to lift) went into a cold oven. I started turning up the thermostat 25° every fifteen minutes or so. I was on pins and needles. My boss Don positioned himself in front of the oven on a stool staring at the oven door until I ran him out with a mop.

After three hours, the lasagna was bubbling beautifully and the bowl was fine. I found a box big enough to hold the damn thing and was just closing the lid when Mrs. Lamar’s mincing entourage came to pick it up for the party, which had already started. Once it was out of my hands, I went up to the bar and got good and snockered.

Practical Primavera

A simple dish, primavera is pasta with early vegetables in a cream reduction; think of it as an alfredo Monet. Sauté cooked pasta–most people use spaghetti or fettuccine, but I prefer a vermicelli or angel hair–and blanched vegetables along with a bit of minced garlic and scallions in enough butter to coat. Season lightly with salt and pepper, add heavy cream, and simmer until cream begins to thicken. Toss with a grated hard cheese, and plate with a sprightly garnish.

The Food and Cooking of the Mississippi Delta

Though documented in fiction, periodicals, and memoirs, community cookbooks are the doors to Delta tables.

Ground Zero

The food of the Mississippi Delta is for the most part typical of Southern foods. Some time ago, I made a list of 12 essential dishes any Southern cook needs to know. I ran it by my friends on social media, and it was like I’d thrown a June bug down in a chicken run. It took a month before the dust settled and I was able to nail it down. Here they are:

Buttermilk biscuits
Cornbread
Pimiento and cheese
Fried chicken
Barbecued pork
Pound cake
Fruit cobbler
Cornbread dressing
Chicken and dumplings
Sweet potato pie
Banana pudding
Stewed greens

I consider this a list of representative foods you might find anywhere in the Lower South as well as Mississippi, but in the Delta you have one big distinction, that being the cultural influence of New Orleans; the culinary influence of Memphis is bush league in comparison. One of the most authoritative books on Delta cooking, Bayou Cuisine, has a gumbo recipe on the third page. You’ll find barbecue recipes there too, but you can find recipes for barbecue from San Antonio to Savannah and as far north as Louisville.

Creole was the blanket term for the distinctive foods of New Orleans and neighboring parts of Louisiana in that day, and it wasn’t until the late 20th century when Creole and Cajun cuisine became separate entities. Paul Prudhomme hammered in this distinction, but later I’m going to introduce you to a man who was raised in the Delta who also made clear the difference is important, but another author who deserves mention is Lafcadio Hearn.

lafcadio hearnHearn was born in Greece in 1950. Shortly after his birth, his mother moved to Ireland, where she abandoned him. Then he was abandoned by his father and a great-aunt, his guardian, who sent him to school in France. Then he moved to England, where he received most his education, then Cincinnati, where he began writing for The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, becoming a successful writer of “real life” crime stories, humor and popular songs. He moved to New Orleans in 1877, saying that “it’s time to get out of Cincinnati when they start calling it ‘The Paris of America’.  He lived in New Orleans for nearly a decade. In his time there, Hearn was little known, and even now he is little known for his writing about New Orleans, except by local cultural devotees. However, more books have been written about him than any former resident of New Orleans except Louis Armstrong. Hearn is credited with “inventing” New Orleans as an exotic and mysterious place. Hearn died in 1904.la cuisine creole cover

La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes, From Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine (New Orleans: F.F. Hansell & Bro., Ltd., c. 1885)  is one of the great classics of Creole cuisine. It was anonymously printed in 1885 but its authorship by Hearn is generally accepted. In his brief but intriguing introduction, Hearn tells us that Creole cookery partakes of the nature of its birthplace – New Orleans – blending the characteristics of the American, French, Spanish, Italian, West Indian and Mexican, Native Americans, African Americans and others in the melting pot near the mouth of the Mississippi.

Food in Fiction

Food is rarely mentioned in fiction because writers of fiction are more concerned with the human condition than soups and sauces. Nonetheless, many writers refer to food, some more, some less, and this descriptions of a Southern table comes from  Gone with the Wind. The war rages, and they’re all seated around the table at Aunt Pittypat’s eating the scrawny rooster Uncle Peter had caught in the rain, and Scarlett remembers:

How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.

This could be a meal in any upper-class antebellum home including those in the Delta. From another era, Faulkner includes a description of a Thanksgiving meal in Sartoris. Food rarely plays a significant role in Faulkner’s fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. There are four kinds of food in books: Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader. Faulkner falls squarely in the second category:

. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries. [Sartoris (1929), Flags in the Dust, (1973), p. 281)]

delta-wedding-cover1Then we have Delta Wedding. Welty didn’t include a lot of food in most of her fiction; you have the green tomato pickles in Why I Live at the P.O., for instance, but she wrote introductions for four cookbooks: The Country Gourmet, by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in 1960; The Jackson Cookbook, published by the Jackson Symphony League in 1971; The Southern Hospitality Cookbook, written by her friend and neighbor Winifred Green Cheney in 1976; and Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, written by Hosford Fontaine in 1981. Welty also knew the importance of food as a significant element of human character, and in Delta Wedding, people are eating all the time. It is after all a wedding.

The foods mentioned include: “Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane, homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it, the patty cake gift for George Fairchild to eat with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him, licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger stage planks, bananas and cheeses, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”:, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopias (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelon and greens.”

Memoir: Trials of the Earth

Read this book, and the next time you’re having a bad day, think back to this woman’s life. Mary Hamilton was a teenager in Arkansas in the early 1880s when she met and married Frank Hamilton, an Englishman who was manager of a lumber camp charged with clearing the forests of the Delta. Her straightforward narrative details cooking for large groups of lumberjacks, children’s births and deaths, impermanent homes in camps and farms, loneliness, natural disasters and her husband’s death in 1914. This remarkable memoir owes its existence to Helen Dick Davis who with her husband Reuben Davis wrote two works of fiction set in the early Delta, Butcher Bird (1936) and Shim (1953). She met the elderly Mary Hamilton in 1931 and encouraged her to set down her recollections of life in the Mississippi Delta backwoods during the latter part of the 19th century. Mary Hamilton died in 1936, or thereabouts; I couldn’t find an exact date. Rejected by Little, Brown in 1933, the manuscript, edited by Davis from Hamilton’s handwritten original, resurfaced in 1991. Davis copy-edited it and approved its publication before her death in 1992.  Mary Hamilton may not have had an education but she was a capable writer. She came into the area east of the Sunflower River in 1897.

Camp life was always either a feast or a famine. That week Frank killed a bear that weighed 250 pounds dressed. I cooked bear meat every way I could think of, and we sent the (neighboring) Minkus camp some. I didn’t cook it every meal, as we got a beef or a hog from Lemaster (the provisioner?) every week and corned beef by the barrel from New Orleans. We treated our men so well during the feast days that when the famine days came on because of bad roads or high water or misspent goods, they understood it wasn’t out fault, and never grumbled. Those men were the bravest, biggest-hearted men, and from those common work-men came some of our richest citizens in the Delta. They took advantage of the cheap lands, took care of their money, and fought their way through a wilderness to make this country what it is today, the garden spot of the South. (p. 84)

Periodicals

The Delta had two historic publications: Delta Review (Winter 1963-64)-v. 6, no. 9 (Nov./Dec. 1969); the self-titled “Magazine of the Mid-South”, and  Delta Scene (Nov. 1973- 1986?). Now, Delta Scene and The Delta Review were more concerned with literature and cultural matters. Food was not a big topic for them, and it really wasn’t for most magazines and periodicals back then, with one exception, which I’ll discuss shortly. But in Delta Magazine (2003—present), not only is food a predominant theme, but yes, they put out a cookbook. Then there’s Progressive Farmer and Southern Living, both of which have a long history of readership in the Mississippi Delta.

Progressive Farmer was founded in Winston, North Carolina in 1886 by North Carolina native Leonidas Lafayette Polk (1837–1892; a Confederate Army veteran. After Polk died in 1892, Clarence H. Poe from Raleigh, NC took over as editor in 1899 and in 1903, he and three partners purchased the publication, taking it from a newspaper to a magazine with 36,000 subscribers by 1908. The magazine soared to a circulation high of 1.3 million by the 1960s.  From the pages of Progressive Farmer rose the largest and most successful regional publication in history. In 1966, the management, led by Emory Cunningham and the editors of Progressive Farmer launched Southern Living magazine fashioned after the lifestyle and home life section in the magazine. The Progressive Farmer had extended its appeal among suburban housewives, and that segment of its circulation received the new magazine, Southern Living to establish its distribution and advertising rate base. Southern food was, is, and always will be a predominant theme in Southern Living. I’ve not yet gone through to find articles and recipes that mention the Mississippi Delta, but that would be a good week’s work if not more.

Newspapers

There are many weekly newspapers in the Delta, The Deer Creek Pilot being foremost among them, of course, and three predominant dailies, the Delta Democrat-Times, founded in 1938, and the metro dailies of The Times-Picayune ( founded 1837) of New Orleans and The Appeal/Commercial Appeal (founded 1841). Food and food writing was very much an incidental subject in most newspapers in the Delta, indeed across the country, until a boy from Sunflower County, Mississippi changed everybody’s mind.

Craig Claiborne

It’s not such a stretch for me to include The New York Times Cookbook in this survey of the literature of Delta food and cooking. If I were to have left Craig Claiborne out of this talk, I’m sure some of you might have pulled a skillet out of your purse and come at me, and I’d be getting ugly emails until New Year’s.

Craig Claiborne is a towering figure; he invented culinary journalism as we know it; if it weren’t for Claiborne, the Food Network wouldn’t exist, which might make some people happy, but broadcast and print media of this genre generate millions upon millions in revenue every year, and employ thousands upon thousands of people, most of whom should either drop a couple of hits of acid or find some form of religion that absolves them of their sins.  Claiborne discovered and promoted chefs as cultural and media personalities – Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme among many others – helped publicize the West Coast/James Beard movement, and introduced Americans to nouvelle cuisine. Claiborne also celebrated a “pan-global eclecticism”, publicizing the cuisines of China, Mexico and Vietnam (during the War), among others. Claiborne was the first to mention tamales as one of the few street foods in the Delta, and the stature of his authority had a great deal to do with establishing the quality as well as the significance of Southern foods across the nation.

claiborne southern cooking cover PPT The fact that he is from Sunflower County is simply mind-boggling.  When it boils down to it, though, Claiborne might best be described as the right man in the right place at the right time. His hiring as the first male food editor of a major newspaper came about as the result of crass opportunism if not (as is hinted) chicanery.  Craig Claiborne knew that Turner Catledge, the managing editor of the Times, just happened to be an old Mississippi boy, who just happened to have gone to Mississippi State. Claiborne spent a year and a half at State (1938-39), was tapped by Pi Kappa Alpha, but he hated it. But during his interview with Turner Catledge, who graduated from State, Claiborne now suddenly remembered it with sugar-coated nostalgia. Claiborne found out that Catledge stayed in the dorm called Old Main, also known as Polecat Alley, and Claiborne suddenly remembered that dang if he hadn’t too! Of course he hadn’t, but the boy needed a job. He was hired in April, 1957. (McNamee, p. 52)

Claiborne set the tone of American culinary culture for two decades and beyond. He became America’s unquestioned authority (his columns went directly to print; no editor) on the full culinary spectrum of foods and restaurants, chefs and cookbooks. He wrote and co-wrote many best-sellers, first and foremost The New York Times Cookbook. You just can’t find exact figures on copies sold of any work, and I’m not sure why. Claiborne got all the copyrights to the work, which was pretty much the basis of a very large fortune.

For all that I admire Claiborne, I just don’t trust him when he’s talking about himself. Even his confessions of being molested as a child somehow seem a bit melodramatic, perhaps a justification of his own homosexuality, as if to say, “It’s not my fault.” Claiborne’s ill-advised 1982 autobiography tells more than you want to know about Claiborne, but leaves a lot of questions.

Howard Mitcham

mitcham bowler PPTNow I want to introduce you to a man who I’m confident most if not all of you have never heard: Howard Mitcham. Mitcham was born in Winona, but his Delta credentials are impeccable.  James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born June 11, 1917. His father, a house painter, died when he was a year old. His mother moved to Vicksburg to find work, leaving the infant Howard with her parents on their watermelon farm on Sawmill Road. Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. After graduating high school (year!), Mitcham moved to Vicksburg and began attending Louisiana State University.

Mitcham made his first visit to Cape Cod as early as 1948, and began living in New Orleans sometime in the early 60s. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown. Anthony Bourdain, who worked in Provincetown during the mid-1970s when he was attending (of all places) Vassar, knew Mitcham and in his Kitchen Confidential writes that “Howard was the sole ‘name chef’ in town.”

“To us, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues,” Bourdain wrote. “He could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen’s bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly (he liked to sing as well). Though drunk most of the time and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman of Cape cod cookery, a respected chef of a very busy restaurant and the author of two very highly regarded cookbooks: The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook and Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz—two volumes I still refer to, and which were hugely influential for me and my budding culinary peers of the time. He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer’s gut and he wore the short-sleeved-snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for the humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.”

“We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook. Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”

Mitcham’s best-known work in my part of the world is Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), arguably the most embracive and best-written book about the food and people of southern Louisiana. The exuberance of this work needs many readings to encompass. In Creole Gumbo, Mitcham celebrates his love for the kaleidoscopic, carefree world of the Crescent City: its food, its history and, astoundingly, given that Mitcham was deaf from the age of 16 from spinal meningitis, its music. Like any knowledgeable writer on the subject — Paul Prudhomme, for instance — Mitcham takes great pains to distinguish between Creole and Cajun, two distinct populations often erroneously lumped together by less astute writers and epicures.

Mitcham died at the age of 79 on August 22, 1996, at Cape Cod Hospital. Mitcham once told Donnels he’d like to be buried in a Truro, Mass., cemetery beside an old clam digger friend of his, but at another time Donnels said, “We were sitting in Pat O’Brien’s, and he said if ever he died, he would like to be cremated and have his ashes scattered through the ventilating fan of the ladies room there.” Mitcham’s ashes were spread over the ocean off Cape Cod.

Granted, neither Claiborne nor Mitcham lived long in Mississippi, but the years they did spend here were formative, and the significance of food in their lives, their family’s life as well as the life of the community, perhaps even the region itself, made a profound impression. Diametric as their culinary careers were, each one had its roots in the Delta.

Community Cookbooks

By far the most important literature for the foods of the Mississippi Delta are community cookbooks published by various organizations, the earliest dating from 1912. These cookbooks are the best historical record of foods and cooking in the region; not only that, but many if not most of them contain far more than just recipes: you’ll also find historical information about churches, or schools or social organizations (ladies clubs, Rotary, etc.) that were very much a part of the town or city of their time.

This is the earliest cookbook I could locate from the Delta, the Twentieth Century Cookbook/Tried and True Recipes by the Young Women’s Guild of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Greenville, January, 1902.  The introduction refers to “A number of these (recipes) which accomplished cooks will find new and pleasing are contributed by well-wishers in New Orleans, justly famed for its cuisine Creole (note Hearn’s title here). We believe these Creole dainties will be found unique and as useful as the more common ones used to make this Greenville cook book a thoroughly complete and valuable aid to its friends and purchasers.” The book sold for fifty cents, which was a lot in those days.

In Jackson, people make a big deal of the white fruitcake that Eudora Welty wrote about in her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, first issued by Symphony League of Jackson in 1971 and followed by a well-deserved 30th anniversary issue. In a pamphlet issued many years later, Eudora greatly expanded on the original recipe. On page 9 of The Delta Cookbook, you’ll find recipes for a white and a black fruitcake. Only the black fruitcake has whiskey in the recipe, but the white fruitcake recipe in The Jackson Cookbook includes bourbon.

Undoubtedly the best-known cookbook to come from the Mississippi Delta is Bayou Cuisine (1970).  Sales figures on books are hard to come by; usually only the publishing house will have them, and when I called St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Indianola asking about sales on this book, they were appropriately ambiguous. A figure of “over 100,000 copies sold” is mentioned in the 1997 sequel, Best of Bayou Cuisine, but I consider that figure very low indeed. Another Delta cookbook stands out as a significant work for a higher reckoning of merit. The Sharecropper,  put out by the Central Delta Academy Parent-Teacher organization in 1987, elevates the community cookbook to the realm of art. In her later years, Ethel Wright Mohamed was known internationally as the Grandma Moses of stitchery. But this native of Fame, Mississippi, spent most of her life raising a family and tending to customers at the store she ran with her husband, Hassan Mohamed, in the Delta town of Belzoni. When Hassan passed away in 1965, Ethel picked up a needle and embroidery floss and began documenting her life: Hassan telling folktales to the children; their housekeeper, Mittie, tending to the stove; the ledger she kept at H. Mohamed General Merchandise. She called her embroideries “memory pictures”. In 1974 one of Ethel’s memory pictures was featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. Ethel passed away in 1992.

The food and cooking of the Mississippi Delta is not as distinct and certainly not as famous as its music, but it is a vital element of life for its people, and should be considered as much a portal to the history and essential nature of this fascinating region as any other legacy of its character.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books by Mississippi Authors, Organizations and Others of Interest

Butler, Jack, Jack’s Skillet. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1997.

Buttros, Waddad Habeeb, Waddad’s Kitchen, Lebanese Zest and Southern Best. Natchez, Ms., 1982.

The Catfish Institute (Belzoni, Miss.), The Catfish cookbook : twenty favorite recipes. Belzoni, Miss.: Catfish Institute, 199-?

Claiborne, Craig, A Feast Made for Laughter. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Claiborne, Craig, Southern Cooking. New York: Wings books, 1987.

Culberson, Linda Crawford, The Catfish Book. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 1991. (“A Muscadine book.”)

Davis, Eva, Mississippi Mixin’s. (A collection of recipes used in Ms. Davis’ daily radio show, “Court Square”, a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg). Illustrations by Andrew Bucci.

Delta Air Lines Activities Committee, Delta’s flying gourmet : favorite recipes of Delta Airline employees. (Jackson, Mississippi, 1981) Lenexa, Kan.: Cookbook Publishers, c. 1981. (Note: Delta is the sixth-oldest operating airline by foundation date, and the oldest airline still operating in the United States. The company’s history can be traced back to Huff Daland Dusters, founded in 1924 in Macon, Georgia as a crop dusting operation. The company moved to Monroe, Louisiana and was later renamed Delta Air Services, in reference to the nearby Mississippi Delta region, and commenced passenger services on June 17, 1929.)

Delta Magazine, Delta Magazine Cookbook. Coopwood Publishing, Cleveland, Ms., 2011.

Foose, Martha, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea. Clarkson Potter, 2008.

—————. A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2011.

Luckett, Lady W.O., My Fare. Clarksdale, Miss., 1958.

Metcalf, Gayden and Hays, Charlotte, Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide To Hosting the Perfect Funeral Mirimax, 2005.

Owen, Renelda L., “When People Were Nice and Things Were Pretty”: A Culinary History of Merigold: A Mississippi Delta Town. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, March 14, 2010.

Pate, Alisa L., Treasured Family Favorites. Cleveland, Miss.: published by the author, 1998.

Pickett, Susan. Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey through the Soul of the South. University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA, January, 2013.

Pitre, Glen, The Crawfish Book: the story of man and mudbugs starting in 25,000 B.C. and ending with the batch just put on to boil. Glen Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. (“A Muscadine book.”)

Potts, Bobby, Louisiana and Mississippi plantation cookbook : authentic Louisiana and Mississippi recipes. New Orleans: Express Pub. Co., 197-?

Reed, Julia, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008.

Sherrer, Rudy, Memories: Cooking with Rudy. Greenwood, Miss.: published by the author, 19–?

Simpson, Frank, Jr, Marguerite Watkins Goodman, Ken Kugle. Accent One, A Book of Recipes: Treasures from Our Kitchen to Yours. Accent Enterprises Inc., Bentonia, Ms., 1985.

Starr, Kathy, The Soul of Southern Cooking. Jackson, Mississippi; University Press of Mississippi, 1989. (Note: “Reminds me of my childhood in Mississippi. . . an excellent contribution to the history of black foodways and culture” –Craig Claiborne)

Wilson, Denise, Family Secrets. Greenville, Ms., 1986.

Community Cookbooks

All Saints Episcopal Guild, The Inverness Cookbook. Inverness All Saints Episcopal Church, 196-?.

Aid Society of the Tutweiler Presbyterian Church, The Southern Cook Book. (Tutweiler, Miss., 1913.

Anguila Methodist Women, Just Heavenly: A Collection of Recipes. Morris Press: 2004. Anguila, Miss.

Auxiliary of the Beppo Arnold Knowles Post of the American Legion, The Delta’s Best Cook Book, Recommended by the Delta’s Best Cooks. Greenville, Miss., 194?

Belzoni Garden Club, All Rolled Together. Fundcraft Publishing: Collierville, Tn., 1999.

Belzoni, Garden Club. Favorite Recipes of our Members and of Friends. Lenexa, Kansas: Cookbook Publishers, Inc, 1974.

Beta Sigma Phi Beta,Zeta Chapter. Our Favorite Recipes. Greenwood, Mississippi : publisher not identified, 1972.

Calvary Baptist Church (Greenville, Miss), A Book of Favorite Recipes. Leawood, Kansas : Circulation Service, Inc, 1988.

Calvary Episcopal Church, The Cook’s Book. Calvary Episcopal Church: Cleveland, Ms., 1972

The Catholic Ladies Group, Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church, Cleveland, Miss., Divine Tastes. Collierville, TN : Fundcraft Publishing, 2003.

Central Delta Academy Parent-Teacher Organization, The Sharecropper. Central Delta Academy PTA: Inverness, Ms. 1987. (Illustrated with reproductions and descriptions of embroidery by Ethel Wright Mohamed)

Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort. Cooking with C.A.R.E: A Collection of Recipes by Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort. 2008. http://www.charlestonartscenter.com.

Church of God (Itta Bena or Greenwood?), Cooking ‘Round the World and at Home. (no date given)

Church of the Holy Trinity. Restoration Recipes. Vicksburg, Miss., Church of the Holy Trinity.

Cleveland Community Theatre, Tastes of the theatre. Cleveland, Miss, 1996.

Cleveland Evening Lioness Club, We serve, too!. Olathe, KS : Cookbook Publishers, Inc., 1988.

Cleveland Garden Club, Taste Buds. Cleveland, Miss.: The Club, 1968.

Cleveland State Bank, Our Best Home Cooking : a collection of recipes. Cleveland, Miss., 19–?

Bolivar Medical Center, A cause worth cooking for: a collection of recipes. Cleveland, Miss., 2006.

Coahoma Women’s Club, Coahoma Cooking: Every Day and Sunday. Coahoma, Miss., 1952.

County Day School (Marks, Miss), Mothers Club. Our Delta Dining. Marks, Miss.: The Club, 1979.

Crawford Street United Methodist Church (Vicksburg, Miss.), The most unique marvelous yummy fantastic cookbook ever! (United Methodist Youth Fellowship) Walter’s Cookbooks; Waseca, MN, 1990?

Crawford Street United Methodist Church (Vicksburg, Miss.), Treasures. Agape Church School Class, Vicksburg, Miss., Nov., 1975.

Culture Club of Indianola, Favorite Recipes. Indianola, Miss., 1957.

Daughters of the American Revolution Mississippi,State Society. The DAR Recipe Book. Place of publication not identified : Mississippi Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1967.

Delta Rice Promotions Committee. Between the Levees. Cleveland, Ms.: 1994.

Deer Creek Mother’s Club, Cookin’ with the Creek Kearney, Nb.: Morris Press Cookbooks, 2002.

Demareé, Troye. Kitchen Table Bridge: A Collection of More than 500 Treasured Recipes from Family, Friends, and some of My Own, edited by Beard, Ann Phillips Adamsville, Tenn.: Keepsake Cookbooks, 2000. [Strayhorn, Ms., Tate County]

Duncan Academy Patrons’ League, The Best in Cooking in Bolivar County. Duncan, Mississippi/Chicago, Illinois: Women’s Clubs Publishing Co. 1985.

Earnest Workers of the Presbyterian Church, Earnest Workers’ Cookbook (revised edition). Greenwood, Miss., 1921.

Easy to Do, Great to Serve Recipes. Clarksdale, MS: Clarksdale, Miss.: Mississippi Madness, 1995.

Episcopal Church Woman, “Lead us not into temptation …” Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Greenwood, Ms., 1983 (?).

First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Greenwood, Miss), Christian Women. Christians Cooking. Collierville, Tenn.: Fundcraft Publishing, Inc, 1980.

First United Pentecostal Church (Yazoo City, Miss), Ladies Auxiliary. What’s Cookin’ in Yazoo City. Kearney, Neb.: Cookbooks by Morris Press, 1996.

Forbus, Kenneth. Forbus Food Favorites. 1984 revised ed. Greenville, Mississippi : Kenneth Forbus, 1984.

Friends of the Bolivar County Library System, Recipes to Read By: A Cookbook of the Friends of the Bolivar County Library System. Cleveland, Mississippi :, 1999.

Girl Scout Council of Northwest Mississippi, Inc., Cedar Point Palette: a gallery of Southern recipes. Greenwood, Miss.: c. 2003.

Glendora Methodist Church (Glendora, Miss.), Glendora Cook Book : Hundreds of Tested Recipes. Glendora, Miss., 1929.

The Division of Home Economics, Delta State University, A Delta Welcome. Cleveland, Miss: Delta State University, 1990.

Humphreys Academy Patrons, Festival Cookbook. Humphreys Academy, Belzoni, Ms., 1983. (This is the cookbook for the Belzoni Catfish Festival.)

Junior Auxiliary of Vicksburg, Vintage Vicksburg. Memphis: Wimmer, 1985. [Vicksburg]

—————. Ambrosia: A Deep-South Mixture of Homes, Recipes and history. 1997; reprint, 2008.

Junior Charity League of Monroe, La., The Cotton Country Collection. New Orleans: Franklin Printing, 1972. [Monroe, La.]

Junior League of Baton Rouge, La., River Road Recipes. Nashville, Tn.: Favorite Recipes Press, 1959. (76th printing, 50th Anniversary Edition, 1999: “The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine”) [Baton Rouge, La.]

Junior Woman’s Club (Greenville, Miss.), Tasting Tea Treasures. Olathe, Kansas : Cookbook Publishers, Inc, 1984.

North Sunflower P.T.A., The Pick of the Crop. Memphis: Wimmer, 1978. [Drew, Ms.] *Rushing winery, cottonseed flour.

————— McWilliams, Barry, Pick of the Crop 2. Wimmer Cookbooks, 1998 (Drew, Ms.?)

The Ladies’ Aid Society of the Presbyterian Church, Tutwiler, Mississippi, The Southern Cookbook. Tutwiler, Ms., 1913.

The Ladies’ Aid Society of the First Methodist Church, Greenville, Ms., The Delta Cookbook: A Collection of Tested Recipes. Printed by The Greenville Democrat, Greenville, Ms. 1917.

Lee Academy, Family secrets: the best of the Delta. Clarksdale, MS : Lee Academy, 1990.

Order of the Eastern Star Chapter 44, Cooking Around the World and at Home. Indianola, Miss., 1948.

Orr, Ellen. A Pinch of Soda–a Pinch of Salt–, edited by Yates, Allene N., First Methodist Church (Shelby,Miss.).Shelby Woman’s Club, 1965.

Pickett, Bob, Brenda Ware Jones, and of Vicksburg Junior Auxiliary. Ambrosia. Vicksburg, Miss.: Junior Auxiliary of Vicksburg Publications, 1997.

Pringle, Mrs. L.V., Jr. and Dozier, Mrs. Lester, eds., The Garden Clubs of Mississippi, Inc., Gardener’s Gourmet. Wimmer Brothers: Memphis, Tn., 3rd. ed., 1978; reprinted, 1983.

Raworth, Jennie D. Valuable Tested Recipes. Vicksburg, Miss.: Vicksburg, Miss. : s.n, 1913.

Ruleville Parent-Teacher Association, P.T.A. Cookbook. Ruleville, Miss., 1924.

Rolling Fork United Methodist Church, Feeding the Flock. Rolling Fork, Miss. Morris Press: 2003.

Temptations, Presbyterian Day School, Cleveland, Ms.

The Shelby Woman’s Club, Proof of the Pudding Recipes. (Collected Recipes by The Shelby Woman’s Club, Shelby, MS. (Notes: “It is the belief of the compilers of this cook book that the eating of food prepared by the recipes printed between its covers will give only pleasure. For each recipe has been tested and tried and adapted to give complete satisfaction of the gourmet giving it. Some recipes are recent originals. Some are copied verbatim with credit given to the source. Some are hundreds of years old, having been passed from one generation to the next and now written for the first time. Each recipe is as the person who gave it wrote it. The abbreviations or symbols used may vary, but are clearly understood by good cooks.”)

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Yazoo City, Heavenly Dishes. Collerville, Tn.: Fundcraft n.d.

St. John’s United Methodist Church, Greenwood, Ms. Let Us Break Bread Together. Hartwell, Ga.: Calico Kitchen Press, 1999. [Greenwood]

St. John’s Women’s Auxiliary, Leland and St. Paul’s Women’x Auxiliary, Hollandale, The Gourmet of the Delta. Ridgeland, Ms.: Capitol Printing and Blueprint Company, 1964. [Leland, Hollandale]

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Indianola, Ms., Bayou Cuisine: Its Traditions and Transition. Indianola, Ms., 1970.

St. Stephen’s Cookbook Committee, Best of Bayou Cuisine. Quail Ridge Press, Brandon, Ms., 1997.

Southside Baptist Church, Heavenly Dishes. Southside Baptist Church, Yazoo City, (?).

Sunflower County, Freedom Project. Delta-Licious: Family Recipes and Stories from Sunflower County, Mississippi. Sunflower, Miss.: Sunflower, Miss. : Sunflower County Freedom Project, 2005.

Tchula Garden Club, Tchula Garden Club Cookbook. Tchula Garden Club; Tchula, Ms., 1958 (reprinted, 1978).

Trinity Episcopal Church Yazoo City, Sally’s Cook Book., Yazoo City, Miss., 1950.

The Twentieth Century Club, Webb, Ms., Everyday Recipes, As We Like It…Deep in the Delta. The Twentieth Century Club, Webb, Ms., 1947.

Tunica County Women, Tunica County Tasty Treats. Tunica, Miss.: 1953.

Tunica County Woman’s Club, Tunica County Tasty Treats, Tunica, Miss., 1967.

United Daughters of the Confederacy Vicksburg, Dixie Delicacies. 4th ed. Vicksburg, Miss.: Vicksburg, Miss.: United Daughters of the Confederacy, Vicksburg Chapter No. 77, 1978.

Vaught, Marshall and Coahoma Women’s Club (Clarksdale, Miss.). Coahoma Cooking, Every Day and Sunday. 5th publication. Clarksdale, Miss.: Clarksdale, Miss.: Coahoma Woman’s Club, 1952.

Warren County Volunteer Firefighters Auxiliary, Warren County Volunteer Firefighters Auxiliary. Vicksburg, Miss. : Lenexa, Kan.: Cookbook Publishers, 1995.

The Woman’s Missionary Union of First Baptist Church, Our Treasured Recipes. First Baptist Church, Boyle, Mississippi.

The Women’s Society of Christian Service, Methodist Church, Benton, Mississippi, Favorite Recipes of the Magnolia State. Benton, Ms. 1948.

Women’s Society of Christian Service, Satartia Methodist Church, Cook Book. Satartia, Miss. 1952.

Wynn, Margaret Brooks. My Dining Generation. Greenville, Miss.: Greenville, Miss. : Office Supply Co, 1962.

Young Women’s Guild of St. James’ Episcopal Church, The Twentieth Century Cookbook. Printed at the Offices of the Greenville Spirit, 1902.

Selected Mississippi Cookbooks and Others

Bailey, John M. Fine Dining Mississippi Style. Brandon, Ms.: Quail Ridge Press, 2003.

Harris, Gladiola B., Old Trace Cooking: Native American and Pioneer Recipes Memphis: Riverside Press, 1981. [Oakland, Mississippi]

Higginbotham, Sylvia, Grits ‘N Greens and Mississippi Things. Columbus, Ms.: Parlance Publishing, 2002. [Columbus, various]

Home Economics Division of the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service, The Mississippi Cookbook. Jackson, Ms.: University Press of Mississippi, 1972. (New introduction by Martha Hall Foose, 2009)

McKee, Gwen and Moslty, Barbara, eds., Best of the Best from Mississippi. Quail Ridge Press, Brandon, Ms., 2003.

Mississippi V.I.P. Recipes, Pearl, Ms.: Philips Printing, 1995. [Various]

Puckett, Susan (text) and Meyers, Angelo (ed.), A Cook’s Tour of Mississippi. Jackson, Ms.: Hederman Brothers, 1980 (3rd printing, 1989). [Various]

Southern Foodways

Ferris, Marcie Cohen, The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Miscellaneous

Atlanta Historical Society, Tullie’s Receipts: Nineteenth Century Plantation Plain-Style Southern Cooking and Living. Atlanta: Conger Printing and Publishing, 1976. [General]

Ownby, Ted, American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty & Culture, 1830–1998. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Telephone Pioneers of America, Bell’s Best. Cookbook Publishers, 1981. (Bell’s Best 2, 1983) [Add other editions.]

Haley/USM Resources

http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/intro_essay.html

http://mscommunitycookbooks.usm.edu/coahoma-cooking.html

http://mscommunitycookbooks.usm.edu/mccain-library.html

http://ocean.otr.usm.edu/~w589232/page2/page2.html

Ars Voces: Anthony DiFatta – A Precarious Balance

I call myself a painter; I paint, so I’m a painter. A teacher of mine, William Baggett, said, “Too many students call themselves artists, and they’re not artists; they’re students.” That stuck with me. I’m still learning, so I’m a student too, and I never want to get past that.

At USM, Jim Meade became my mentor. Meade steered us towards the formality of composition. He would talk about the Golden Mean, the Golden Rectangle, the Fibonacci sequence, and how all those tied into aesthetics. We would draw forms and divide them up, explore the geometry of formats just to get us geared into recognizing that this is the way things can be arranged so that your brain knows it’s there, even though it’s not drawn out. It was so boring! I often thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I came here to become a good artist and to find something that nobody’s ever done before and become famous; that’s why I’m here!’ But it ended up becoming a completely different experience.

The first class I took I failed. The teacher said that I could render things okay, but that I didn’t know anything about drawing. At that point I realized that I either had to dump all my preconceived ideas about art and begin learning, or I’d have to find something else to do, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. I’d just gotten out of the military, I was 24, one of the “old guys” in the class. And these young kids were, well, drawing circles around me. I had to humble myself, tell myself that I had to learn, and if I want to discard it, I’d discard it. So we did gesture drawing, weight drawing, blind contour, taking the works of Renaissance painters, placing tracing paper on top and finding how they lined up their compositions, learning from masters of their art. When we were given more freedom to start making decisions, form was so ingrained it was natural. We didn’t even have to think about it. Then Jim came up with a great phrase, which I attribute to him because I’ve never heard anyone else use it except myself, but he called it cultivated intuition. You cultivate a visual idea so much that it becomes intuitive.

Meade would also tell me not to worry about coming out with my own style. He told me that style is either going to happen or it’s not; it’s going to be you coming out. He would tell me, “Miles Davis didn’t get a trumpet and start writing his own music and improvising; he learned the notes, he played the scales, he did the boring stuff over and over and over. Once he got good at the boring stuff, then he played other people’s music. Then, when he became proficient in other people’s music, people he admired, he took all those things and was able to push it further out than it had ever been pushed before.” That made complete sense to me. I wasn’t in college to make paintings, I wasn’t studying art to make paintings; I was studying to learn how to paint, the paintings would come later.

Visual strength is seeing something that connects deeper than ‘Wow, that’s a pretty horse in that painting.’ Or ‘That painting looks just like a photograph.’ It might be a great painting that looks just like a photograph, or it might be a shitty painting that looks like a photograph; but the fact that it looks like a photograph is irrelevant. It could simply consist of a few squiggly lines in the right place and it would be charged. Dali’s work is cool and interesting and psychological, but it relies so heavily on the subject matter being shocking that it’s a matter of diminishing returns: the more often you see his work it doesn’t grab you like it did the first time. I’m not sure if what he was doing defeated his purpose visually. Van Gogh’s Chair is powerful on both levels. I think good art engages with precariousness in balance between the linear composition and the color; you want unity, but you don’t want so much unity that it’s boring. You have to have some contrast. I guess I’ve allowed for this chaos and order by allowing all the chaos and accidental stuff to happen at first, so I’ve got to put it together. I don’t want to take away that spontaneity, but I want it to eventually look like a flat piece of art with everything fitting within the frame.

Every art professor in the world would probably cringe to hear someone say this, but art is something that you hang on your wall and you look at every day. If people didn’t have art hanging on their walls, then artists wouldn’t exist. I have a painting by Ellen Langford that see every day, and every time I look at it, it re-engages me. And I notice something different about it; either I’ll look at it formally, at the composition, the way she treats the negative space between the trees and around the house, or I’ll look at the expressions on the faces and see the animals in there. There’s a lot going on, but at the same time it’s simple; it’s got this juxtaposition, this push/pull, so what jumps out at me most often is what’s farthest  away. Arnheim talks about this in his book, about flattening the space by making what’s farthest away in the painting come forward.

Even in my non-representational pieces, I’m very much concerned with the negative space and the picture plane. If everything doesn’t look like it belongs there, if everything doesn’t relate to that flat surface, then it doesn’t work. I try to put a sort of weird overlapping depth in there, but it also has to be flattened. So you’re tricking the minds of your viewers with this push/pull going on; it’s a visual element I use to re-engage the viewer. When people say ‘This artist is so talented,’ it’s almost an insult to the hard work it takes to be decent at something. That’s also what’s exciting about it. My work has continued to change and evolve, and I still learn things. They can refer to me as an artist when I’m good.

Anthony DiFatta, self-portrait

A Floridian Pepper Caper

Bars—for those of us who frequent them—provide insights of the most profound sort into the human condition. This I firmly believe is because bars combine by their very nature the easy-going, ruminative atmosphere of an agora with the somewhat less philosophical and contemplative aspects of a boisterous opium den, making them the perfect stages for a meeting of minds between people who have hitherto never set eyes on one another.

So it was that in a bar in St. Augustine, Florida, the waitress, after serving my fourth beer along with a pound of boiled shrimp asked, “Would you like to try our datil pepper sauce with these?” Intrigued as a Southerner, more specifically as a Mississippian and a pepper-head to boot, I replied in the affirmative and was served a fluted ramekin containing a creamy sauce flecked with black pepper. “It’s got a bite!” she warned.

And indeed it did, but not at all what I—a seasoned if not to say jaded veteran of salsa skirmishes—would consider fierce or fiery, but I had to ask, “What the hell is a datil pepper?” Of course, bless her heart, she was a newcomer from Missouri, so she marched off to the kitchen and came back with the chef, who was a proud native of St. John County, and a descendant of those St. Augustineans who came from Minorca as indentured workers in the late 1700s.

“The datil pepper,” he explained after hoisting himself–nimbly, I must add–on a stool beside me and ordering an O’Doul’s, “is a very hot pepper, a type of Capsicum—you say you know peppers, so you’ll recognize Capsicum (I nodded)—chinense–this he emphasized by holding up an index finger–that came to Spain, then to Minorca, from Cuba. My people brought them with us. What we have done here with our sauce is to combine the fiery datil—which is similar in taste and appearance to the habanero—with mayonnaise, which as everyone knows was invented in Minorca in ancient times and is named for the capitol city, Maó-Mahón. Do you like it?”

Of course I told him I liked it, though to be quite honest putting a spicy mayonnaise on shrimp ran somewhat contrary to my tastes, which tend to a pungent, horseradish-and-lemon juice infused tomato condiment. When I asked where I could get seeds, he stated emphatically that he could get some seeds for me at the end of the season, or I could contact the St. John County extension office. I gave him my address with many thanks.

So I finished my shrimp, ordered another beer and was sitting there in what some might term the glow of culinary discovery when this seedy-looking little skinny guy in a Dolphins jersey sidles over and says, “You’re not believing that crap are you?”

“Why not?” I said, my reverie reduced to embers.

“Oh, hell, that pepper’s just something one of them crackers found growing in a pile of horseshit behind the city hall, and they decided to make a big hoo-hoo about it,” he said. “They just tell you tourists that bull turkey so you’ll buy a bottle and take it home and brag about it.”

After all that, I had to ask him where he was from. “Key West,” he said smiling. “Where we grow those yellow limes.” I just grinned and bought him a beer.

“Works every time,” he said.

Mississippi Sin

Yes, dear hearts, gluttony is a mortal sin, and is–along with the other six, I hasten to assure you–rampant in Mississippi, where Class III obesity is endemic. While this recipe is new to me, it’s apparently been around for a while; you’ll even find “low-cal” versions, as if adulterating transgressions might mitigate the consequences. Honestly; some people. Blend well a cup of sour cream with 8 oz. softened cream cheese, add 2 cups grated sharp cheddar, a half cup each chopped ham and green onion, and small drained can of green chilies. Spoon into a toasted bread bowl, wrap in aluminum foil, and bake at 350 until crusty, forty minutes or so.

Chicken Fricassee from the King Edward

This recipe comes from The Jackson Cookbook (1970), a wonderful addition to any kitchen library, but what sets it apart, raising it to a level no other cookbook in Mississippi can hope to achieve, is the Forward, “The Flavor of Jackson,” a jewel of exposition by Welty. The dish is a classic, old-school fricasee–rich, with a sublime aroma–is characteristic of the haute cuisine fashionable in hotels such as the   King Edward in the middle of the 20th century. Bread the chicken lightly, and slice the onions thickly so they won’t singe. Baste at least once, twice is better. I used boneless thighs skewered and lightly floured (no drenching beforehand) with salt and pepper, early yellow onions, and a mixture of fresh and dried thyme. Use a medium heat—the butter will burn if too hot—and give the chicken a good browning. I wilted the onions in the oil/butter before topping the chicken, drizzled with more of the mix, and baked in a medium (350) oven for about an hour.