When it comes to the literature of food and cooking in the Mississippi Delta, there’s a lot out there; this document only scratches the surface. Though I am including fiction, periodicals and personal accounts such as memoirs, community cookbooks are the keys to food and cooking the Delta, and those keys open a lot of doors.
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 one of the first classic literary descriptions of a Southern table is from Gone with the Wind, when 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 giant in the field of food writing. For all practical purposes, 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. 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. 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’s 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. 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.
I have composed a complete bibliography of community cookbooks from the Delta, but you should also be aware that a fellow named Andrew Haley, an associate professor of history at USM, who won a James Beard Award (the Pulitzer of the food world) some years ago, has begun a website devoted to Mississippi community cookbooks. 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.