Diana Kennedy was a Brit who married the New York Times correspondent for Latin America in the 1950s and early 1960s. She fell in love with Mexican food, which she soon discovered is far better in the country. She learned the cuisine literally from the ground up, visiting every state in Mexico on buses and donkeys and in her Nissan pickup with no power steering, carrying a shovel to dig out of mud and sand.
Kennedy’s explorations resulted in an authoritative body of work that provides a thorough, extensive survey of the many cuisines of Mexico from Chiapas to Baja. Her essential work is The Cuisines of Mexico (Harper & Row, 1972). If you are at all interested in food and cooking, and you have a taste for books that are well-written, well-researched and ring with conviction, then you must have this one on your shelves.
Kennedy’s introduction, “A Culinary Education” certainly ranks among the most notable essays about coming to know food as more than mere nourishment (see below). The first section, “Ingredients and Procedures” gives the initiate a thorough grounding in such arcana as herbs, kitchen equipment, and chilies. You’ll find no better introduction to the basics of the Mexican kitchen.
As to the recipes, bear in mind that Kennedy was writing for a somewhat less sophisticated audience, and these were selected for simplicity and ease of preparation; still you will find surprises. You might be, as I was those many years ago on first reading, delighted by the seafood recipes (“There is an awful lot of coast to Mexico …”), which includes perhaps one of the first recipes for “cebiche” included in an American cookbook. The inclusion of many Gulf species among these recipes is poignant indeed in this post-BP Gulf world. My personal favorite among them is the snapper Vera Cruz, which we served at the Warehouse during my tenure.
Kennedy’s writing is strong and serviceable, rarely lyrical but savory when so. Her most powerful gift is an excruciating, attention to detail in every respect, evidence of her intelligence and commitment to authenticity. She wanted you to know what she loved.
Kennedy died on July 24, 2022, at the age of 99.
A Culinary Education
Although I have always loved good food, it was in Wales during the war years, when I was doing my service in the Women’s Timber Corps, that I first savored food I can still remember today.
In the Forest of Dean we would toast our very dull sandwiches over the smoldering wood fires and roast potatoes and onions in the ashes to help eke out our rations on those frosty, raw mornings. Later, in the Usk Valley, as we cycled for pleasure through the country lanes and walked the Brecken Beacons, we would stop for the farmhouse teas: thick cream and fresh scones, wedges of homemade bread spread thickly with freshly churned butter, wild damson jam, buttery cakes that had been beaten with the bare hand. From there I moved to an even more remote village in Carmarthenshire. To supplement the strict rationing, there was salmon trout fished from the river that ran within a few hundred yards of the cottage; when fishing wasn’t good there was a steaming bowl of cowl, a soup made from stinging nettles, or just a plate of green beans-picked fresh from the garden and doused with butter from the big earthenware crock that stood by the kitchen door. The butter was soft and yellow, with perceptible grains of salt and globules of water-hand-churned butter from the farm next door. On summer evenings, when everyone from the village would go up to the hillside farms to help bring in the hay, the ham that had been strung up to the rafters by the fireplace months earlier was cut down. It was a feast to us then with bread, onions, and creamy local cheese. Thursday was baking day, and as we cycled wearily home from the woods the smell would waft toward us as the bread was being taken, very crusty, from the brick wall ovens.
After the war there were occasional trips to France, and memories flood back of the first belons, and moules along the Côtes du Nord; rice cooked with minute crabs that had to be sucked noisily to extract their sweet juice; the ratatouille, and refreshing Provençal wines in a Saint-Tropez bistro. I can’t forget the lunchtime smell of olive oil in northern Spain as we walked up through the oleander bushes from the beach, and the never ending meals in the Ramblas restaurants in Barcelona, or beef à la tartare after a day’s skiing in the Austrian Alps. It was then that I really learned to cook, to reproduce what had been eaten with such pleasure.
I soon wanted to travel further afield, so I emigrated to Canada. I had never before eaten such crusty rye bread as that of the Spadina Road market in Toronto, or cheeses, summer sausage, and sugar-cured ham quite like the ones the Mennonites made. There was a wonderful breakfast of freshly caught fish on the banks of Lake Louise after an early morning hike through pine forest on a sparkling and pine-scented day. Later in our journey it was followed by poached West Coast salmon in Vancouver, the minute Olympia oysters, and further south in San Francisco the sand-dabs and rex sole.
When I traveled back to England via the Caribbean, everything was new and had to be tried: callaloo, lambie stew, and soursop ices; salt fish and ackee in Jamaica, where, too, you had to see the famous Blue Mountain coffee growing and buy the syrupy sugarloaf pineapples. I ate my first mango, a huge Bombay, conveniently standing up to my neck in crystal clear water on a small island off the Kingston harbor.
And that was the summer I met Paul Kennedy in Haiti, where he was covering one of the many revolutions for The New York Times. We fell in love and I joined him in Mexico later that year.
And so life in Mexico began. Everything was new, exciting, and exotic. Luz, our first maid, loved to cook. One day she brought her corn grinder to the house and we made tamales: first soaking the dried corn in a solution of unslaked lime, washing the skin of each kernel, and then grinding it to just the right texture. It seemed to take forever, and our backs ached from the effort. But I shall never forget those tamales. She introduced us both to the markets and told us how to use the fruits and vegetables that were strange to us.
Finally Luz had to go, and Rufina came from Oaxaca; it was her first job. She was young and moody, but she was a really good cook and my apprenticeship continued as she taught me how to make her rather special albóndigas, rabbit in adobo, and how to draw and truss a hen.
But I suppose it is Godileva to whom I am most indebted. I always loved the evenings she would stay to do the ironing; we would chat about her life when she was a young girl on her father’s small ranch in a remote area of Guerrero. They had lived well, and she loved good food. She would pat out our tortillas, and before lunch would make us gorditas with the fat of marrow bones to enrich them, and as we came in the door would hand us, straight from the comal, sopes smothered with green sauce and sour cream. We would take turns grinding the chilies and spices on the metate, and it is her recipe for chiles rellenos that I have included in this book.
I had other influences as well. My friend Chabela, on several trips into the interior, taught me almost all I know about the handicrafts of Mexico; together we visited craftsmen in remote areas and on those journeys we would try all the local fruits and foods. It was she who spent many hours in my kitchen showing me, accompanied by meticulous instructions, the specialties of her mother’s renowned kitchen in Talisco.
At last our stay had to come to an end. Paul had been fighting cancer courageously for two years, and it was time to return to New York. By then we had traveled extensively together, and on my own I had driven practically all over the country, seeing, eating, and asking questions. I started to collect old cookbooks and delve into the gastronomic past to learn more for the cookbook that I hoped some day to write.
Paul died early in 1967, and later that same year Craig Claiborne suggested that I start a Mexican cooking school. I suppose I wasn’t ready to start a new venture; I was too saddened and worn by the previous three years. But the idea had planted itself, and in January 1969, on Sunday afternoons, I did start a series of Mexican cooking classes-the first in New York. A wintry Sunday afternoon is a wonderful time to cook, and the idea caught on.
The classes expanded beyond those Sunday afternoons, and the work for the book went on as well. But while the classes continue to flourish and grow, the research and testing have come at least to a temporary halt-if only to allow the book to be published at last. For I find myself involved in a process of continual refinement, due both to the frequent trips I make to Mexico to discover new dishes and to refine old ones, and to the constant dialogue between myself and my students and friends who try these recipes with me.
In 1981 catfish farming was booming, nowhere more so than right around Craig Claiborne’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. Claiborne was invited home to take a look at the catfish farms by Turner Arant, who built his first catfish pond in 1962. Arant helped organize Delta Pride Catfish Processors, Delta Western, Farmers Grain Terminal, Community Bank, and served on the board of each of these companies.
“(Claiborne) visited here in my home and I got my wife (Sybil) to prepare catfish for him four different ways,” Arant said. Claiborne returned to his home in East Hampton, where in addition to good ol’ fried catfish and hushpuppies, he and Pierre Franey worked up recipes for catfish meunière, catfish au vin blanc, and catfish Grenobloise.
Before he left Mississippi, Claiborne visited the Cock of the Walk in Ridgeland, Mississippi, which had opened the previous year. Claiborne reviewed the restaurant in a November column, declaring, “During my recent visit to Mississippi, I ate in what might be the best catfish restaurant in the state, and therefore the nation.” The Cock of the Walk holds the distinction of being the only Mississippi restaurant ever reviewed by her native son in The New York Times .
INDIANOLA, Miss.—Like most Southerners, I adore catfish. I remember that half a century and more ago my family would drive to the banks of Four Mile Lake near here and unload a picnic hamper. Gliding about on the water were small pleasure boats, many of whose passengers dangled fishing lines from cane poles, hoping a catfish would nibble. In the crystal-clear water, the lines could be seen all the way to the bottom. Many of the men word white linen suits and black string ties, and some wore white straw hats or boaters with wide brims. Some of the women carried parasols to guard their skin against that burning Mississippi sun.
Over the years catfish has remained a Southern regional specialty. But lately, thanks in large part to the abundant supply produced by catfish farms,” it has become more widely available. (Catfish will be available later this work at Shopwell Food Emporiums at 1331 First Avenue (71st Street), 1458 York Avenue (79th Street) and 1052 First Avenue (57th Street) in New York and 261 Ridge Street in Rye.)
I’m not certain that my mother, who was a marvelous cook, ever prepared catfish at home: she was too aristocratic for that. Red snapper, yes, it was basted for an hour or longer with a Creole tomato sauce made with chopped green peppers, chopped onion and celery (a friend of mine once called the combination of chopped peppers, onion and celery the holy trinity of Creole cocking). But catfish was too common, something to be enjoyed outdoors, as at those Sunday outings.
Eating deep-fried catfish was a ritual. The cooking was done in large metal kettles that were heated with long-burning logs. When the fat in the vats was extremely hot, the pieces of catfish were dredged in a blend of com meal (always white, never yellow). salt and pepper. When they were dropped into the fat, the vessel be. came a bubbling caldron until the fish were ready to be removed with perforated spoons and set to drain A catfish menu was and is today always the same: the com-meal coated catfish with its golden-brown crusty exterior and moist white inner flesh; deep-fried hush puppies, deep-fried potatoes and coleslaw. And tomato ketchup. Deep-fried catfish without ketchup is like a hot dog without mustard.
In the course of a recent visit to my hometown here, deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta about 100 miles south of Memphis, I discovered that many of the farmers in the region are moving into the field of pisciculture converting their cotton and soybean acres into ponds that produce some of the sweetest-fleshed catfish in America. I would go so far as to say that it is the finest freshwater fish in America, including pike and carp. It is the equal of most saltwater fish, including lemon or gray sole. Fillets of catfish can be used in almost any recipe calling for a white nonoily fish.
In days gone by, the catfish that was eaten in this country was channel catfish that had spawned and thrived in muddy river waters. It was said that the catfish smacked of the waters in which it had swum, and this was true. The catfish that is raised in freshwater ponds is wholly different, remarkable not only for its flavor and texture but also for its non-fishy characteristics. Even after it is frozen and de frosted it remains snow white and as firm as when taken from the water.
During a visit to a fish-raising enterprise known as Delta Catfish, I was taken to numerous ponds for a look at the product known as Delta Pride. The ponds, which measure 20 acres square and are four or five feet deep, are filled with the fresh water for which the Mississippi Delta is famous.
The fish get a commercially prepared feed that is about 35 percent protein and no longer feed on the bottom. They are taken from the ponds directly to a surgically clean processing plant where they are skinned by machine. They are shipped around the country either fresh or frozen-whole, cut into steaks or as fillets. A Delta Catfish spokesman estimated that his company would produce 100 million pounds this year. Though Mississippi is by far the longest producer for the retail market, there are also farms in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.
When I returned from Mississippi, I brought with me about 30 pounds of frozen catfish filets. After they were defrosted overnight, Pierre Franey and I experimented over the next few days. converting them into many appetizing creations, from deep-fried catfish with hush puppies to catfish meunière and Grenobloise, and catfish in a white wine sauce. We also duplicated a dish I had dined on in a country home near Sunflower: catfish baked with cheese, the recipe of Sybil Arant.
4 catfish fillets, about 2 pounds
¼ cup milk 4 cup flour
Salt to taste, If desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste y cup peanut, vegetable or com oll
Juice of ½ lemon
4 seeded lemon slices
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley.
Dredge the fillets in milk. Lift the fillets one at a time from the milk and immediately dredge on all sides in flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat the oil in a skillet until quite hot. Add the fillets in one layer and cook about three minutes on one side or until golden brown. Turn and cook, basting often and liberally with oil, about six minutes.
Transfer the fillets to a warm serving dish. Pour off the oil from the skillet. Wipe out the pan.
Add the butter to the skillet and when it is foaming and starting to brown, swirl it around and pour it over the fish. Sprinkle with the lemon juice. Garnish the fish with lemon slices and sprinkle with parsley. Yield: 4 servings.
Follow the recipe for catfish meunière, but add one quarter cup drained capers to the butter as it is being heated to pour over the fish.
Catfish Filets in White Wine Sauce
6 catfish fillets, about 2 pounds
5 tablespoons butter
½ cup dry white wine
½ pound mushrooms, thinly sliced, about 2 cups
Salt to taste, If desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons flour cup milk
Juice of a lemon
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Pat the catfish pieces dry. Rub a baking dish (a dish measuring about 2 by 13 by 8 inches is ideal) with one tablespoon of the butter. Arrange the fillets over the buttered dish in one layer.
Add the wine. Scatter the mushrooms over all and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Place in the oven and bake 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a saucepan and add the flour, stirring with a wire whisk. Add the milk, stirring with the whisk. When blended and smooth, remove from the heat.
Pour the liquid from the baked fish into the sauce, stirring. Bring to the boil and cook, stirring often, about five minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Pour the sauce over the fish and bake 10 minutes longer. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and parsley. Serve hot. Yield: 6 servings.
3 catfish fillets, about 1 pound
Fresh corn oil to cover cup white cornmeal
Salt to taste, if desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Tomato ketchup Hush Puppies (see recipe).
Heat the oil for deep frying. 2. Cut each fillet in half crosswise.
Combine the cornmeal, salt and pepper.
Dredge the fillets in the cornmeal. Pat to make the cornmeal adhere. Drop the fillets in the oil and cook five to 10 minutes or until crisp and brown. Serve with lemon halves, ketchup and hush puppies. Yield: 2 to 4 servings.
Follow the recipe for deep-fried catfish, but brush the pieces on all sides with mustard before dredging in cornmeal.
1½ cups white cornmeal 4 teaspoons flour 2 teaspoons baking powder
Salt to taste, if desired 1 tablespoon sugar ½ cup grated onion
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup rapidly boiling water
Fresh corn oil to cover.
Combine the cornmeal, flour. baking powder, salt, sugar, grated onion and egg and blend well. Add the water rapidly while stirring. The water must be boiling when added.
Heat the oil to 370 degrees. Drop the mixture by rounded spoonfuls into the oil. Cook until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Yield: About 36.
Sybil Arant’s Catfish Baked with Cheese
6 to 8 cattish fillets, about 2 pounds
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup flour
Salt to taste, if desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk
½ cup melted butter, sliced almonds.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Wipe the catfish dry.
Blend together the cheese, flour, salt, pepper and paprika.
Combine the egg and milk in a flat dish.
Dip the fillets in the egg mixture and then coat with the cheese mixture. Arrange the fillets in one layer in a biking dish and pour the butter over al. Sprinkle with the almonds. Place in the oven and bake 20 minutes. Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Though documented in fiction, periodicals, and memoirs, community cookbooks are the doors to Delta tables.
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:
Pimiento and cheese
Chicken and dumplings
Sweet potato pie
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.
Hearn 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: 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)]
Then 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now 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.
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.
Books by Mississippi Authors, Organizations and Others of Interest
Butler, Jack, Jack’s Skillet. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1997.
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.)
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
One of the most enduring social mechanisms is that by which elitism becomes far more ostensibly manifest in people who come from the most humble backgrounds. Take for example any given one of those Upper East Side hipsters who infest the trendier corners of New York City and act as if they’re the apex of the social universe when in fact most if not all of them grew up in a fly-over state and moved to the city after securing a degree at Podunk U. in hopes of sharing a line of coke with Ivanka Trump.
A less current but perhaps more familiar example would be Craig Claiborne, who grew up in a boarding house in Indianola, Mississippi, and eventually became the arbiter of culinary taste for the nation. Claiborne is the archetype of effete snobbery. Claiborne’s excesses in his disregard for the “little people” were such that he was chastised by Pope Paul VI for a $4000 dinner for two in Paris he enjoyed with his partner Pierre Franey in 1975; the Vatican newspaper deplored the display while millions were starving. The French press noted that the price of the meal represented a year’s wages for most workers, and American columnist Harriet Van Horne wrote, “This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong morally, aesthetically and in every other way”.
Claiborne was nonplussed, of course, which is the typical reaction of snobs to their extravagant self-indulgences.;“Let them eat cake,” indeed.
Given this display of culinary snootery, it’s somewhat of a surprise that we find on page 312 of Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook–after a whole slew of soufflés and between two egg curries–a recipe for pickled eggs, which are to most people the least sophisticated dish in the world. Good heavens! Is this a chink in Claiborne’s otherwise immaculate armor? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not; one recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Maybe pickled eggs acquired the blue-collar brush after they became a snack staple in Southern pool halls and honky-tonks; then again, like a lot of snobs, maybe that’s where they got their start.
For every half dozen boiled eggs, bring to a boil 1 cup white vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices, 2 slices ginger root, a crushed clove of garlic, and a teaspoon salt. Cover eggs with spiced vinegar. Set aside for at least a day.
In 1985, Craig Claiborne visited Bill Neal’s restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and after sampling many dishes, asked Neal to prepare shrimp and grits for him in his kitchen the next morning. Claiborne published this recipe in the New York Times, and the national craze for shrimp and grits was on. While the recipe has been replicated—usually with disappointing results—in restaurants across the country, this is the original recipe.
6 cups cooked grits with cheese (I use a white cheddar)
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 pound (454 g) fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced scallions
1 large garlic clove, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Season grits to taste, but lightly, with Tabasco, a very little nutmeg, and white pepper. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Peel the shrimp, rinse, and pat dry. Dice the bacon and sauté lightly in the skillet. The edges of the bacon should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the bacon fat in the skillet to make a layer of fat about a quarter of an inch deep. When quite hot, add the shrimp in an even layer. Turn the shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms, and sauté about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the scallions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Then season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over and serve immediately.
Craig Claiborne wrote his tell-all autobiography A Feast Made for Laughter (Doubleday, 1982) when he was undergoing intense psychotherapy (ostensibly for alcoholism; “self-destruction” triggered by “self-detestation”) that given a convoluted assessment of his mother’s smothering influence was no doubt intensely Freudian. In the end, he concludes that he didn’t hate his mother, that she was “a victim of culture, of her time and place” like Amanda Wingfield you might say or Claiborne himself mayhap.
By all accounts Mary Kathleen Craig Claiborne was a formidable woman who supported her family after Mr. Claiborne lost a fabled family fortune by taking in boarders, including psychologist and sociologist John Dollard who stayed in Indianola while conducting research for his Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937). During his stay, Dollard committed what might well be the most grievous social error possible in the South, showing great disrespect to his hostess by disrespecting her cooking. According to Claiborne, “In the beginning he criticized the cooking of the greens, complaining that there was not a vitamin left in the lot. And as a result of his well-intentioned explanations and the base encouragement of the other boarders, my mother willingly committed one of the most wicked acts of her life. Dr. Dollard was placed at a bridge table, covered, of course, with linen, and set with sterling, and he was served a mess of raw greens that he ate with considerable and admirable composure and lack of resentment.” Years later, in the early 1970s, Claiborne recounts wandering into the photographic studio at the New York Times, glanced at the assignment sheet and saw the name “John Dollard, Yale”. As he walked in, Dollard walked out, and Claiborne introduced himself. “How’s your mother,” Dollard asked. “She’s a great woman.”
The best evidence we have of Claiborne’s filial love is his recipe for her chicken spaghetti, “printed on many occasions, for it, more than any other, was my favorite dish as a child, and I still prepare it.” Claiborne finds it, with characteristic affectation, “notably akin to certain authentic Italian sauces, notably a ragù Bolognese made with ground meat in a tomato and cream sauce.” Then he goes so far as to say that it was strictly his mother’s creation, and “she was famous for it up and down the Mississippi Delta.” Well, certainly her version is her own; it includes ground beef and pork as well as chicken and is undoubtedly one of the most complicated recipes Claiborne, whose recitation is his most meticulous if not to say fastidious, ever published.
Chicken spaghetti simply can’t be credited to the creativity of any one individual cook; people have been combining chicken and noodles of some kind since the dawn of history, and chicken spaghetti in some form or another has been around in Mississippi ever since pasta began being marketed here. You’re going to find two in the Mississippi Home Extension Service’s The Mississippi Cookbook, one from Ovett, the other from Hickory, both about as far away from the Delta as you can get without getting wet.
In its most basic incarnation, chicken spaghetti is nothing more than cooked spaghetti or vermicelli noodles mixed with a can of cream of chicken soup, topped with Kraft Parmesan and stuffed in a hot oven. In more labor-intensive versions, mushrooms (Green Giant or such) are usually involved, as are onions and bell pepper and a white sauce, but diced tomatoes are a hit-or-miss option. And even though Mrs. Claiborne topped her chicken spaghetti with cheddar, if you ask me, that’s just trashy; use Parmesan and mozzarella.
Claiborne’s recipe has been printed in almost everything he did, but this version comes from Christmas Memories with Recipes (1988) along with his endearing “Distant Christmases”. In this essay, he recalls, “On Christmas afternoon there was also, to my mind, a surprising annual ritual, surprising because both my parents were teetotalers, and alcohol, other than the pharmaceutical sort, was absolutely forbidden in my home. Each Christmas, however, my mother would ask a neighbor to buy her a pint of bootleg bourbon (it was during Prohibition and my home state was dry). She would then assemble her rich-as-Croesus eggnog, made with an abundance of eggs and heavy cream, and temper it with a bit of bourbon. She would also pour a generous quantity out of the bourbon bottle over the homemade fruitcakes, which would be sliced and served with the eggnog.” You must use fresh organic eggs for a this recipe.
8 eggs separated
3/4 c. sugar
1 c. bourbon
1/2 c. heavy cream
Put the egg yolks and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until light and lemon-colored. Gradually add the bourbon, beating on low speed. In a separate bowl whip the cream until stiff. Fold it into the egg-yolk mixture. In a clean bowl whip the egg whites until stiff and fold them into the eggnog. Serve with a generous grating of nutmeg.
Craig Claiborne seems overshadowed by James Beard and Julia Child, but Thomas McNamee’s biography The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance might change that.
Then again, it might not; though described by Betty Fussell as more “accessible” than the ostensibly warmer Child, McNamee initially seems to struggle against presenting the enigmatic complex Claiborne as anything less than a remote Olympian figure. 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, but The New York Times provided Craig Claiborne with the preeminent platform to fulfill his mission, which McNamee describes as nothing less than “advancing the nation’s culinary culture”.
Claiborne’s call for reform (off the bat McNamee cites an April, 1959 column “Elegance of Cuisine is on the Wane in U.S.” as his gauntlet) came at a time when the nation was ripe for unabashedly elitist change; within a year, Jackie Kennedy, designer clothing and a French chef were in the White House. McNamee explains how Claiborne, with lavish finesse and training he received in Switzerland, set the tone of American culinary culture for two decades and beyond. This biography confirms his pervasive influence on food and dining and easily dismisses his only serious detractors, back-benchers John and Karen Hess, as resentful nit-pickers.
By the mid-Sixties Claiborne had 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. He 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 reveled in a “pan-global eclecticism”, promoting the cuisines of China, Mexico and Vietnam (during the war), among others. He also lived to celebrate a resurgence of great American home cooking. His influence extended into the Reagan administration, and his legacy is evident today in the treatment of food as an important media subject. He created food journalism, and his sheer adventurism still informs our attitude towards food and cooking.
Though a bit exaggerated – McDonald’s Ray Kroc and other fast-food titans have influenced America’s diet far more than Claiborne –The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat should assign Claiborne’s ill-advised 1982 autobiography to a well-deserved obscurity. McNamee’s solidly researched and beautifully presented biography is a richly balanced and long-awaited feast for those wanting to know more (but not too much) about Craig Claiborne, an icon of his day and an avatar of ours, but I wouldn’t expect a biopic any time soon.