Jackson’s Culinary Canon

Jacksonians have produced an extraordinary selection of superb cookbooks because its citizens have a long history of commitment to the commonweal, and among those citizens have been not only talented cooks, but writers of surpassing ability. The culinary literature of any given city (or region) reflects the character of its peoples, and taken altogether, this selection, which I submit as the “best of the best”, shows Jackson as a richly cultured city with an exceptional standard of Southern cuisine. And yes, let’s go ahead and admit that (with one notable exception) most of them are rather stuffy, as cookbooks issued by civic organizations tend to be, but still, they include an extraordinary amount of cultural history as well as superb writing.

Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa
(Muscadine Press: 1981)

In 1981, proprietor Hosford Fontaine—doubtless at the urgings of countless friends—published Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa. The book is a treasure-trove of history, with profiles of the people who kept the resort functioning as well as other unforgettable characters, musicians and artists such as Till Caldwell, Inez Wallace, Ted Faires, Marie Hull and others. Many of these people contributed to the illustrations, which are augmented by dozens of charming vintage photos including a poignant image of Hosford standing amid the charred ruins. Best of all, The Last Mississippi Spa also includes a sprawling section on recipes for almost anything to put on the table: hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, dressings, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables, breakfast and brunch dishes, desserts, candy and cookies, all “tried and true” from the La Font kitchens. The book includes a warm and heartfelt Forward by Charlotte Capers and a brief introduction by Eudora Welty.

The Jackson Cookbook
(Hederman Brothers: 1971)

This cookbook could well be held up as an archetype of a Southern ladies’ cookbook; it’s stiff with tradition and understated elegance. Indeed, in a note “About the Cover,” the editors explain that Artist Carl Davis translated Welty’s comments about “the era of the Madeira tea napkin,” into a work of art using an heirloom tea napkin “hand embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson,” with Jackson’s monogram “J”. This note follows a short essay by the Women’s Editor of The Clarion-Ledger, Mary Alice Bookheart, “The Aesthetics of Eating,” which states in part, “This is not necessarily a cookbook of old Jackson recipes. … What (the cookbook committee) has attempted to do in compiling this book is to achieve a happy blend of old and new …” This book also includes some restaurant favorites, such as the “Edwards House (King Edward Hotel) Chicken”. The recipes are simple and use familiar ingredients as well as commercial items, and provide items for any occasion, ranging across the menu. The Jackson Cookbook is 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 Southern Hospitality Cookbook
Oxmoor House: 1976

Simply put, Winifred’s The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a groaning board of splendid recipes, but as a whole nothing less than an illuminating documentation of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied, the ingredients often expensive and times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, the most frequent critiques of the book involve how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her class and generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients. Many of the recipes are true heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard. She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors. The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”) and a preface by Eudora herself (“A Note on the Cook”).

Standing Room Only
Hederman Brothers: 1983

“With Narratives by Eudora Welty and Beth Henley,” announces the marquee on New Stage’s truly superb “Cookbook for Entertaining”. Henley’s short essay on theatre parties is quite fun, and Welty’s “A Note about New Stage” is the definitive article on this beloved Jackson institution. The posters and playbills, along with the accompanying texts, that separate the divisions are also marvelous diversions, but the true stars here are the recipes. This is hands-down my favorite Jackson cookbook because the recipes are sumptuous, clearly presented, and a lot of them are just damned fun. Most of them are written for more than four servings and are captioned with “can double”. Also included are the invaluable sections, “Buying Guide for 50 Guests” and “Setting a Bar for 50 for One Hour”. SRO throws in an herb and wine guide as curtain calls.

Southern Sideboards
Wimmer/JLJ: 1978

The most distinguished cookbook in this selection, and winner of the prestigious Southern Living Hall of Fame Award, Southern Sideboards is THE right cookbook for traditional Southern recipes before the “foodie revolution” of the 1980s. These recipes aren’t designed for health or with an eye to fussy ingredients, so if you’re the type of person who wouldn’t be caught dead in a checkout with a can of Cream of Celery soup, then it’s certainly not for you. But if you’re one of those hide-bound traditionalists who want to know EXACTLY how Granny made that Southern Cornbread DRESSING, then this is your book. Sure, the recipes are often complex and some do take a little time, but you know what? Time and preparation are keys to good cooking and good eating. The game recipes are truly superb, as are the desserts, particularly the cakes. Southern Sideboards is distinguished by a splendid, heartfelt essay by Mississippi native Wyatt Cooper, an author, screenwriter, and actor who is better known as the fourth husband of Vanderbilt heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and the father of journalist Anderson Cooper.

The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Funeral Planner
Three Rivers Press: 2003

Despite what you may think, I am not including Jill Connor Browne’s cookbook in this list because I’m afraid that if I didn’t, I’d in the very near future have a magenta sequined bootie up my patootie. No, I honestly think the Big-Ass Cookbook is absolutely fabulous. Not only does it have lots and lots of great—albeit indulgent—recipes, it also has reams of practical advice: “Hormones are serious juju, and if you don’t get them sorted out, you might find that you need money for things like lawyers and bail.” I think it’s Jill’s best book, though I must profess a weakness for cookbooks. Here you’ll find satire without (much) malice or rancor, some of the best writing—flat-out writing—to come out of Mississippi, and humor that’s deliberately  earthy without being crass or (too) coarse. Of course, I’ll never be fit to sew a single sequin on an SPQ outfit, but I adore them from afar.

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