Southern Recipes from The Great American Writer’s Cookbook

“In recent months I have looked forward to the mail with an anticipation and excitement I’ve not felt since, in the summer of 1946 as a ten-year old, I sent off penny postcards from Oxford, Mississippi, to Hollywood, California, and waited anxiously for autographed, black and white glossies of Alan Ladd and Jeanne Crain, Clark Gable and Betty Grable, Cornell Wilde and Yvonne de Carlo, Flicka, and Lassie to be delivered at my front door. The letters I’ve received in the past six months are even better.”

So writes Dean Faulkner Wells in her forward to The Great American Writer’s Cookbook (Yoknapatawpha Press, 1981. Dean Faulkner Wells and her husband Larry collected over 200 recipes sent by 175 writers of novels, short stories, history, commentary, plays, poetry, reportage, columns, and criticism, all among the finest of their generation. Most are predictably far better at writing than cooking, as hinted at in the introductory quote by John Cheever: “The only time I ever go into a kitchen is when I’m being chased out the back door.” The majority of the recipes are serious; exceptions include John McPhee’s “Count Zeppelin Pancakes,” Larry L. King’s “Party Boy’s Midnight Snack Puree,” David Halberstam’s “Cracked Crab à la McNamara,” and Irwin Shaw’s Italian Delight.”

“Many of the writers who sent recipes questioned the title,” Dean wrote, “advising me to change it to The American Writers’ Great Cookbook, or The Minor Regional American Writers’ Cookbook, or even concluding, ‘I heard that there once was a Great American Writer, but he died.’ She adds that the book is “in a small way a tribute to the men and women who have given me, in their distinguished work over the years, so many hours of pleasure and edification.”

In his introduction, Craig Claiborne writes that when attending a party of glittering literati in the Hamptons, he was astounded to find William Styron staring at him and pouting.

“You,” he said accusingly, “are the one critic who hurt me most.” I frowned. Me? A literary critic. He must be thinking of another man with my name. “You,” he continued, “criticized my recipe for fried chicken.” I laughed when he recounted the basis for my alleged attack.

 It seems that some years ago there was published a book called The Artists and Writers Cook Book, and in it was his recipe for southern fried chicken. I should have learned long ago that there is nothing that can come nearer to creating lifelong enmity, if not to say bloodshed and worse violence, than one Southerner criticizing another Southerner’s fried chicken. Bill, of course, is from Virginia and I from Mississippi. It seems that the crux for my attack was that he had recommended cooking that chicken in bacon fat in lieu of lard blended with butter which my mother used and a technique which I in my turn borrowed. He also said, as I recall, that frozen chicken might be used. And that, I found unpardonable. In any event, before the evening which included a pitcher of martinis, we had a fine old time swapping recipes for grits and corn pones and hushpuppies.

Here’s a selection of recipes from Southern writers.

Barry Hannah: Three Bean Soup

This is a recipe that I learned from my aunts when I was little. It’s plain, staple food that can feed a big gang of people-friends, lovers, kids, relatives, everybody! I call it “Three Bean Soup.”

You start with three kinds of beans: kidney, white (navy) and black- eyed peas. Take a big-real big-pot of water, dump ’em in, and add some shredded onions. Sauté either pork or beef, cut up in little chunks, and dump it in. Bring it to a boil. Add salt mixed with pepper, to taste. Turn up the heat and bring it up again. Add water if needed; dump in a small bag of rice, and bring it up. Boil until it thickens. For extra seasoning, I sometimes add some crab-boil, Tabasco, or whatever’s handy on the shelf. Serve it with French bread and butter. It’s all the nutrition you can stand.

Shelby Foote: Viennese Boiled Beer

This is a two-step recipe, long-drawn-out but easy all the way. What’s more the result is well worth the trouble, for what you get is nothing less, I think-though I may be genetically prejudiced; one of my grandfathers came to Mississippi from Vienna-than the best main dish in all the world.

Step One, ingredients:
3 lbs. chicken parts, preferably
backs and wings.
1 veal knuckle.
5 large carrots, sliced.
2 medium turnips, quartered. 6 sprigs parsley.
2 bay leaves.
3 large onions, quartered.
8 stalks celery, sliced.
10 whole peppercorns. 6 whole allspice. 2 T. salt.

Place the above in an 8- or 10-quart stock pot. Add 5 quarts water; cover and bring to a boil, then reduce to a winking simmer for three hours, skimming and degreasing if necessary. Strain into another pot and keep the resultant four quarts of stock hot on the back of the stove for use in Step Two.

Step Two, ingredients:
5 lbs. boned beef brisket, whole and well-layered with fat. 18 small white onions, peeled.
12 small carrots, trimmed. 12 small potatoes, peeled. 6 wedges young cabbage.
Place brisket in stock pot, pour in hot broth from Step One; let simmer gently, covered, for three hours. Then add onions and carrots; let simmer another half hour, while potatoes and cabbage wedges are boiling in separate uncovered pots of salted water.

Serving: Remove brisket to a large well-and-tree platter; arrange vegetables around it and ladle stock generously over all. At table, carve brisket into medium thin slices; serve each plate with two slices of the beef and a fair portion of the vegetables, spooning more stock from the platter. Have handy a bowl of coarse salt, a pepper mill, and plenty of good cold beer. The best accompanying condiments are Dijon mustard, applesauce, and sour cream laced with horseradish. Serves six hearty eaters, most of whom will come back for seconds- and some for thirds. Leftover broth makes an excellent soup for future meals or will serve as the basic stock for preparing sauces.

Borden Deal: Southern Fried Chicken Like It Ought to Be . . . Along with ‘Erbal ‘Ushpuppies

This recipe is not an “old family favorite,” but an invention of my latter-day bachelor status.

Most Southern Fried Chicken you will encounter is not the delicate dish it’s cracked up to be. The culprit, as a usual thing, is the heavy, wet batter applied to the bird so thickly that’s all you can taste. It was precisely my dissatisfaction with “the old family favorite” that led to my creation of the following recipe:
First, dismember your bird: I do it in the country style, removing the wishbone intact, separating thigh from drumstick, trimming off the rear- ward tallow along with the pope’s nose, and surgically removing the neck (all of which I save for homemade soup). Rub the parts with a crushed clove of garlic.
Second, measure out nine tablespoonfuls of corn meal, (preferably stone ground), add three tablespoonfuls of plain flour (for the sole pur- pose of persuading the corn meal to stick better), then sprinkle a modi- cum of salt, two or three teaspoons of crushed fines herbes, a judicious measure of decent paprika to taste, and mix well.

Roll the chicken parts in the dry mixture and drop into a skillet half- filled with simmering corn oil. (You will need two large skillets). Save out the liver and gizzard for later insertion.
It is essential, for achieving the proper golden texture, to cover the skillets for five minutes; turn the chicken, cover for a second five minutes; then allow the chicken to finish cooking uncovered.

As soon as the chicken is underway, add the proper amount of milk and baking powder commensurate with the amount of left-over corn meal (you may also wish to add a bit more fines herbes also), and with your very own hands (a utensil will not do) mix the resultant mess into a firm batter. After flouring your hands, roll out between your palms the ‘erbal ‘ush- puppies in small balls about the size of a large marble. You should have about ten or so when you are done.

When you have turned the chicken pieces and are ready to cover them for the second time, drop the ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies in and around the chicken parts… along with the liver and the gizzard. This should bring them off at approximately the same time as the chicken.
(The traditional hushpuppy is “spoon dropped” into the cooking oil, but that’s hard to do along with the frying chicken. You can cook them separately, but your ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies won’t then pick up flavor from the meat).

Be sure to turn the ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies with a spoon from time to time so they will rise and cook evenly. When they, along with the chicken, are crisp and golden, serve piping hot (with a Scottish bagpiper, if your amenities extend so far) and you have the perfect one-dish meal: South- ern Fried Chicken Like It Ought To Be, with my special creation, ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies.

And it’s just as good cold the next day.

Harry Crews: Snake Steak

Take one diamondback rattle snake.

(Fifteen feet of garden hose, a little gasoline in a capped jar, a croker sack, and a long stick will be all you’ll need to take the snake. On a cold day, 32 degrees or colder, find the hole of a gopher-the Southerner’s name for a land tortoise. Run the hose down the hole until it is all the way to the bottom. Pour a teaspoon of gasoline into the hose. Cover the end of the hose with your mouth and blow. Shortly, the rattlesnake will wander out of the hole. Put the stick in the middle of his body, pick him up, and drop him in the sack. On the way home, don’t sling the sack over your shoulder, and generally try not to get struck through the cloth.)

Gut and skin the snake. No particular skill is needed for either job. Cut off the head six inches behind the eyes. Cut off the tail 12 inches above the last rattle. Rip him open along the stomach and take out everything you see. Peel him like a banana using a pair of pliers as you would to skin a catfish. Cut the snake into one inch steaks. Soak in vinegar for ten minutes. Drain and dry. Sprinkle with hot sauce, any of the brands out of New Iberia, Louisiana. Roll in flour and deep fry, being careful not to overcook. Salt to taste and serve with whatever you ordinarily eat with light, delicate meat.

Figure one snake per guest. Always better to have too much than too little when you’re eating something good.

Hodding Carter: Betty Carter’s Barbecued Shrimp

Hodding was the cook in our family at Feliciana—he and Phalange Word. Phalange would cook-and serve a perfect dinner for ten and leave just before the guests. When they had all gone Hodding would go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator door, look at the dabs of left overs so recently put away and announce mournfully that here was all this good food going to waste. Then, getting out a gumbo pot, he would fill it with whatever he saw, seasoning it as he went and thus creating one of Daddy’s Incredible Ice Box Soups. No recipe ever written down, no two ever alike. (I ate one I had taken out of the deep freeze while he was sail- ing to La Coruña. It was almost cannibalistic of me, it tasted so much like him!)

My forte is easy easies served informally and the best of these is Bar- becued Shrimp, served right from the baking pan with French bread. A green salad and beer and/or coffee and perhaps apple pie for dessert (someone else can make that!)-the smallest possible time investment. But Good!

5 lbs. headless raw shrimp, unpeeled, frozen or fresh, any size from medium on up.
1 pound of oleo (not butter, which burns)
Black pepper-have a fresh can ready
2 teaspoons garlic salt

Thaw the shrimp, if frozen; drain off excess water, spread in two layers in baking pan. Melt the oleo and pour it over the shrimp. Pick up your can of pepper and start shaking it over the shrimp, blanketing the whole sur- face so the shrimp disappear. Then do it again. Sprinkle the garlic salt over the surface. (The trick is to use more pepper than you think you should.)

Bake in 350 degrees about 25 minutes. At end of 15 minutes take a long spoon and turn the shrimp so those on top are on the bottom. Peel and sample one shrimp. Judge whether to cook another five minutes or ten.

Required is a heavy trivet to protect the table from the oven heat of the pan—I use a baking pan a bit larger than a 3-quart pyrex.

When done, take the baking pan directly to the center of the table where the guests will be seated. The diners serve their plates with a spoon, then tear off hunks of French bread and dunk in the liquid in the pan, repeating as their appetite suggests and as long as the sauce remains.

Serves six without trepidation on the hostess’ part, seven adequately and eight perhaps.

Reynolds Price: Pimento Cheese

I’ve failed in a long effort to trace the origins of pimento cheese, but it was the peanut butter of my childhood-homemade by Mother. I suspect it’s a Southern invention (I’ve seldom met a non-Southerner who knew what it was, though they take to it on contact); in any case, prepared ver- sions can be bought to this day in Southern supermarkets-most of them made apparently from congealed insecticides. Last year, once I’d ac- quired a Cuisinart, I rebelled and tried to reconstruct Mother’s recipe. I’ve made a change or two, in the interest of midlife zest; but I think any child of the thirties and forties (from, say, Baltimore down) will recall the glory and bless my name.

Grate a pound or more of extra sharp cheddar cheese. Chop coarsely one jar of pimentos (four ounces, more if you like) with one or two cloves of garlic. Mix into the grated cheese with plenty of freshly ground pepper and a minimum of salt; then gradually add enough homemade mayonnaise (maybe three tablespoons) to form a stiff chunky paste. Sometimes I add a little lemon juice or a very little wine vinegar or Tabasco-nothing to disguise the bare cheese and peppers and good mayonnaise. I’ve been caught eating a pound in two days (though it keeps well), especially if life is hard. On rough brown bread, it’s a sovereign nerve-salve.

James J. Kilpatrick: Black-Eyed Peas and Stewed Tomatoes

Go into the pea patch about 4 o’clock of an August afternoon, and pick half a peck of black-eyed peas and two or three ripe tomatoes. Then repair to the verandah (or deck, or porch as the case may be) and sit in the shade sipping some Tennessee whisky.

The pea pods should be about as long as a fresh copy pencil, fully packed but not turned brown. Using your thumbnail, gouge each precious pearl from its velvet case. When you are done, put the peas on to simmer. Throw in a nice hunk of ham hock or a couple of pieces of bacon. After the peas have simmered for an hour or so, quarter the tomatoes and toss them in. Salt and pepper. A couple of licks of Tabasco will im- prove the batch. Under no circumstances whatever is sugar permitted. A small onion, finely diced, is allowed.

When it gets too dark to see the label on the whisky, remove pot from stove and serve the delectable mess over hot cornsticks. Serves one.

Roy Blount, Jr.: Garlic Grits and A Song to Grits

I have cooked a few things, but I don’t remember how I did any of them. This recipe means something to me, though, because I got it from Maureen Dees, of Mathews, Alabama, who served me and her then-hus- band Morris some of it in their house, which once had a cross burned outside it. I always wanted to eat grits in a house that had had a cross burned outside it.

1⁄2 cup milk
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup quick cooking grits 1⁄2 cup margarine
2 eggs beaten
23 package garlic cheese, finely diced
2 to 3 cups cornflakes crushed 1⁄2 cup melted butter

Combine 1⁄2 cup boiling water with milk, salt, grits, margarine, eggs and half the cheese in casserole dish. Stir over low heat until cheese melts. Top with cornflakes. Pour butter over cornflakes. Sprinkle with re- maining cheese. Cook in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Yields six servings.

In between bites, sing stanzas of my poem about grits, called “Grits Poem,” or, “A Song to Grits.”

When my mind’s unsettled, When I don’t feel spruce, When my nerves get frazzled, When my flesh gets loose-
What knits
Me back together’s grits.
Grits with gravy,
Grits with cheese.
Grits with bacon,
Grits with peas.
Grits with ham,
Grits with a minimum Of two over-medium
Eggs mixed in ’em: um!
Grits, grits, it’s
Grits I sing-
Grits fits
In with anything.
Rich and poor, black and white, Lutheran and Campbellite,
Jews and Southern Jesuits, All acknowledge buttered grits.
Give me two hands, give me my wits, Give me 40 pounds of grits.
True grits,
More grits,
Fish, grits and collards.
Life is good where grits are swallered. GRITS!

Scottie Fitzgerald Smith: Bloody Bull

Everybody has heard of a Bloody Mary or a Bloody Shame (without vodka), and many have heard of a Bullshot (bouillon with vodka), but better than either on a hot summer holiday, when you can take a nap after lunch, is a cross between them known as a Bloody Bull.

My father and Hemingway are alleged to have invented the Bloody Bull while arguing about a Faulkner novel in the Ritz Bar after Hemingway’s return from Pamplona. My father thought that Mr. Faulkner was one of the greatest writers who ever lived, and it would have been quite characteristic of him to have defended this position while horizontal, if necessary.

1 large can V-8 juice
2 cans bouillon
Juice of 4 lemons
Lemon pepper
Worcestershire sauce Tabasco Celery salt
Stalk of celery
Mix all these, stir vigorously, add vodka, and pour over cracked ice. The celery stalk is not necessary but adds a touch of elegance.

David Donald: Date Loaf

One of my favorite recipes, which my mother gave me and which in turn her mother gave her, is for a Date Loaf.
Here are the ingredients:

3 cups white sugar
1⁄2 pound package of dates
1 cup of chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
1 cup sweet milk
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring 2 tablespoons butter.

Boil the sugar, butter, and milk until a soft ball is formed when dropped in cold water. Turn off the heat and add dates and nuts, then cook slowly, stirring all the time until the dates have completely cooked to pieces. Take off the heat, add vanilla, and stir until a little of the mixture will not stick when dropped on a damp cloth (or waxed paper). Pour in rolls (i.e., like a long, thin loaf) on two damp cloths. Roll up the cloths, let cool, and slice with a sharp knife.

The result is a wonderful, rich, and very, very filling dessert. About two small slices will hold the most ravenous adolescent for a whole afternoon.

Elizabeth Spencer: Golden Dream

This is my grandmother Elizabeth Young McCain’s recipe for Golden Dream, which was my favorite dessert when I was a child, and still is! Beat the yolks of 4 eggs slightly and add 1⁄2 cup sugar, the juice of one orange. Grate rind of 4 of it, also juice of one lemon. Cook in a double boiler until thick, then beat in the whites of the eggs beaten stiff. Cook a couple of minutes and if desired two teaspoonfuls of dissolved gelatine may be added and the whole poured into a mould. Chill till firm and serve with whipped cream.

You can also pour it into individual molds, of course.

Turner Catledge: Pork Balls Prytania

Tidbits named for the house on Prytania Street in New Orleans where many have been cooked and enjoyed tidbits between many drinks, where they fit in best.

1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1pound hot sausage
3 cups Bisquick

Mix all ingredients, roll into bite-size balls, place on cookie sheet. Bake for 12 minutes in an oven heated to 350 degrees. Uncooked balls can be stored in deep freezer and heated when needed.

Eudora Welty: Charles Dickens’s Eggnog

This is the eggnog we always started Christmas Day off with. I have the recipe my mother used, though she always referred to it as “Charles Dickens’s Recipe.”

6 egg yolks, well beaten
3 Tbs. powdered sugar, sifted 1 cup Bourbon
1 pt. whipped cream
6 egg whites, whipped into peaks but not dry
nutmeg if desired

Add the powdered sugar gradually to the beaten egg yolks. Add the Bourbon a little at a time to the mixture. Add the whipped cream and the beaten egg whites, folding gently in. Chill. Serve in silver cups with a little grated nutmeg on top if desired.


The Yazoo

This heartfelt essay is the introduction to The Yazoo River by Frank E. Smith, the forty-seventh volume in The Rivers of America, a landmark series of books for the most part written by literary figures. The series spanned three publishers and thirty-seven years, starting in 1937 and ending in 1974 with the sixty-fourth volume.

At the time The Yazoo River was published, Smith, was a U.S. Congressman from the Delta region. Rep. Smith’s congressional career ended when redistricting forced him into a contest with fellow Democrat Jamie Whitten in the 1962 primary.

“It was Smith’s refusal to ‘race it up’ in his 1962 campaign that paved his way to defeat,” reporter Robert E. Baker later wrote in The Washington Post. Bowing to political reality, Smith knew “he could not participate in the vital field of human relations as a legislator,” Baker wrote in a 1964 review of Rep. Smith’s memoir, Congressman from Mississippi.”

“I had a problem,” Smith said, “but it did not reach momentous proportions until internationalism in any form became synonymous in Mississippi with socialism, communism, one-worldism, or (worst of all) integration.” Smith noted that “it was hard to find language that would satisfy my constituents and still not stir up hate.”

His perspective on the Yazoo Delta Region, where he concentrated on the special problems of conservation and development of natural resources, is that of a native son. Smith was born in Sidon, Miss. After attending public schools there and in Greenwood, Miss., he graduated from what was then Sunflower Junior College, in Moorhead, Miss. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1941 from the University of Mississippi, where he studied history. He went into the Army as a private a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. He became a field artillery officer in Europe.

After the war, he was editor of the Greenwood Morning Star, and in the late 1940s, he served as legislative assistant to Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.). After holding a state senate seat from 1948 to 1950, he was elected to Congress in 1950. His district encompassed the Delta, from just north of Vicksburg almost to the border with Tennessee.

Smith’s Yazoo (1954 )was preceded by Hodding Carter’s The Lower Mississippi in 1942. Smith dedicated his work

“In Memory of my Brother Fred Cecil Smith
Who loved the Yazoo country
and died defending it
at Guadalcanal/Nov.  19, 1942.”


The first tributaries of the Yazoo rise where the Tennessee hills meet the Delta of Mississippi, and eventually they drain all of the western half of the state down to Vicksburg.

The actual Yazoo watershed includes a few miles in Tennessee, southeast of Memphis, but the river and its basin belong only to Mississippi. The Yazoo carries the waters of the Coldwater, the Tallahatchie, the Yalobusha, the Yocona, the Skuna, the Sunflower, the Quiver, and other sizable streams like Steele’s Bayou, Bogue Phalia, and Deer Creek, which somehow missed the dignity of being called a river. In late summer, before rains, they are clear, pale-green ribbons among the willows. In the winters and springs they are ever-widening seas of yellow mud, taking to the Gulf the wealth of the land they drain.

With its satellite streams, the Yazoo is one of the major tributaries of the Mississippi, outranked only by the Ohio among the streams which flow from the east into the Father of Waters. With the extreme limit of its watershed barely touching Tennessee, the Yazoo is entirely within the state of Mississippi, not even forming part of a state boundary line. Although confined to the northwest quarter of one state, the story of the Yazoo is, more than anything else, the story of the Deep South, a region that was an American frontier for one hundred and fifty years. The story of the Yazoo country is the story of the role of cotton and high water and their influence on American life.

Memphis, on the Mississippi, is the metropolis of the Yazoo country today and a likely starting point for any traveler who wants to go south to visit the area, but the Yazoo wilder- ness had a world-wide fame long before Memphis was even a flatboat landing. Today the Yazoo is still an agricultural region, with no towns of any size. Vicksburg, on the Mississippi at the mouth of the Yazoo, is the largest and best known. But the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, richest and broadest of all the Mississippi Valley bottom lands, is America’s most fabled fertile farmland, the last stronghold of King Cotton and the Southern plantation.

The river’s basic stream begins with the Coldwater, which becomes a respectable river long before it meets the Tallahatchie 220 miles down in the Delta. The Tallahatchie has already curved 190 miles through the hills as the “Little Tallahatchie” and is big enough to dominate at the merger and give its name to the new stream. The Tallahatchie moves south 111 miles through Delta land before it is joined by the Yalobusha, fresh from 165 miles in the upland hills. Together they become the official Yazoo, with 189 more miles to go before joining the mother Mississippi at Vicksburg. The 520 miles of the Coldwater-Tallahatchie-Yazoo make it one of the major tributaries of the Mississippi. For the purposes of this book, I have included all the streams of the Yazoo system, for they are all part of the same story of the cotton country of Mississippi.

The most accepted geological theory is that the Yazoo was once the Ohio. The wide, sweeping scars which have been left on the Delta land in the form of crescent lakes and bayous are too broad and big to have been cut by the Yazoo itself. The Mississippi is known to have been still in place to the west at the time these scars were in the making, and so geologists are convinced that once the Ohio came down the path of the Yazoo, before erupting earth changed its route from south to west and established the Tennessee River as another part of its old channel.

Our story will not be of that geological mystery, but of the people whose lives were influenced and fashioned by the Yazoo and those who today are attempting to better their way of life by refashioning the Yazoo itself. Of necessity the story has to be about cotton, for the fleecy staple has dominated all the history of the white man on the Yazoo, who so often has come to believe it a kind of white gold.

The bluffs and rolling hills of the upper Yazoo country were the great prizes to be wrested from the Choctaws and Chickasaws in the years immediately after Mississippi became a state. This was the frontier of cotton during the famous flush times of the Southwest. The planters of the region where cotton was so vigorously ruling were chief among the Secessionists in 1860, eager to preserve the system which had opened up new land for them, and which annually brought forth a heavy harvest from the fertile acres.

Postponement of the conflict for a few years might have greatly dampened their enthusiasm for the plantation system and slavery. The topsoil was thin throughout the upper Yazoo basin, and it began to wash away into poverty just as soon as farming returned to its peak after the failure of the War for Southern Independence. The evils of the cash-crop economy which the tyrant of the new plantation credit system soon shackled on the land were a major contributing factor to the rapid erosion of the land, but the decline in fertility was inevitable from the start.

Only the Delta land, the major portion of the Yazoo basin, was rich enough to sustain the new cotton system for a long period of time. Before the war the flat Delta country, which had fed to a richness surpassing the Nile Valley on the regularly overflowing rivers, was known as the Wilderness. Bold men willing to push out from the steamboat landings found it a morass of forest and swamp and cypress brake, seemingly all of it under water half the time. Pioneer settlement of both planters and squatters began even before the land was ceded by the Indians, but the Delta was still a frontier for years after the Civil War. This was the time for a new type of pioneer, one who could get the most results from the black laborers who were now free men and thus establish the last stronghold of the feudal plantation system, which did not change materially until it felt the impact of the economic revolution which got underway in the 1930’s.

The people of the Delta define their region as the Yazoo Delta, to differentiate it from the technical delta of the Mississippi south of New Orleans, and they have made the story of the Delta the principal part of the story of the Yazoo. Rich land makes the Delta richer, if the richness has only been by comparison with the poverty-stricken hill cotton country of Mississippi. The symbol of the richness has been Delta cot- ton, which traditionally commands a premium of at least two cents per pound because of its long staple quality. The Delta pattern of life for all of its people, black and white, has been richer in the same comparison, both for those who lived it and those who watched it.

Even though one or two small factories are now found in nearly all the towns of the basin with as much as two or three thousand population, cotton is still the dominant factor in the economy. There is an oil refinery on the banks of the river south of Yazoo City, near the site of the Confederate shipyard, but petroleum development has touched only a portion of the Yazoo country largely outside of the Yazoo watershed. Traditional Southern cotton production is shifting to California and the Southwest, but the Yazoo Delta will likely stay with cotton for a long time still to come.

The Delta is all sky and level lands that never fall beyond the horizon in any direction, for the high riding clouds are tumbled down behind the bayou cypress. No trees are in the cotton that shimmers white through the brown foliage in the September sun, but every field is broken by the lines of willows and cypress that follow a bayou. Delta sunsets bring the whole land into a blaze that gives the brownish light of fire to every object until the grayness of dusk moves in.

There are no theatrical Southern “mammies” here, dressed in store-bought bandannas and gingham for the benefit of tourists. The Delta has not attempted to sell the romance of cotton and the plantation instead of the staple itself. By the same token, the Delta has never known much of the provincialism of other portions of the rural South; the hard lessons of experience have taught Deltans never to let the struggle for livelihood interfere with the enjoyment of life.

In common with most of the rest of the South, the Delta makes a food specialty of barbecue and Brunswick stew, but nowhere else does every segment of the population share in the common institution of the fish fry. Game fish of considerable variety inhabit more than one hundred lakes left like scars on the land by the meandering rivers of other days, but the big cats from the Yazoo itself are standard fare for the best fish fry. True Delta catfish in its most delectable form is prepared by rolling large slices of the fish in meal and salt and frying it in hot pork grease. The very ease of preparation is deceptive, for only a true fish artist can know just the right sizzle for the grease and just the right golden tone that announces the finely done fish.

In the midst of the mechanized farms and the new commerce and industry of the towns, there is still enough left of the hurried combination of frontier and plantation eras to provide a distinctive flavor of both. Little more than a hundred years ago the Delta was a deep forest, with water oak, cypress, sweet gum, and pecan trees blending with walnut, maple, and cottonwood to hide the sun from the virtually impenetrable cane and brush. The Yazoo rose every year to spread a lake over the land, with a new film of rich topsoil left behind for the reservoir of fertility. In the summer and fall it had all the beauty of a placid lake. In 1821, while painting a great-footed hawk which he killed on the river, Audubon described “a beautiful stream of transparent water, covered by thousands of geese and ducks and filled with fish.”

With all the wealth and the lost beauty, the name in Choctaw means “River of Death.” The Indians supposedly gave it the name when they died by thousands from the unknown maladies probably left behind by the soldiers of Hernando De Soto. The death struggle of the Indians was continued by the white settlers who faced the same deadly scourges. The disease of malaria was eventually conquered, but not until the river itself, in combination with the cotton culture, was on the verge of destroying the new civilization in its basin through flood and erosion of both land and people. The people have fought back, however, and they are confident now that the Yazoo will never be death to them.