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.”