Red Remoulade Galatoire

This essence of zest is via Howard Mitcham, who claims he received it from Justin Galatoire, the nephew of Jean Galatoire, in the 1950s. We have no reason whatsoever to doubt he did.

1/2 cup Creole mustard
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons finely minced scallion or parsley
Hot sauce and horseradish to taste

 

Howard’s Crawfish-Eggplant Pie

Cryptozoologists report that crawfish three feet long live in a remote Japanese lake, but not one of these animals has yet to make its way onto a sushi bar, much less into an étouffée. The largest recorded crawfish, about half that size, live in Tasmania, where they are protected by law, not like that would stop a Cajun with a plane ticket and a dozen coolers.

Crawfish are the same thing as crayfish. What distinguishes them from their cousins (lobster, shrimp, crab and krill) is that crawfish live in fresh water, making them the most available crustaceans in the world. They’ve been eaten with relish for centuries. Their popularity in this country is largely restricted to the Deep South, more specifically to Louisiana, for the simple reason that the French people who came to live there (unlike the riff-raff who invaded the rest of the country) were more familiar with crawfish as food than as bait.

God in His Infinite Wisdom provided the French settlers in Louisiana with a vigorous and plentiful species for their tables, the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii). Renegade squadrons of these creatures have achieved invasive status all over North America as well as Europe and Asia, and their proliferation in the wetlands surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi provides the basis for a multi-million dollar industry. The Louisiana Legislature designated the charming city of Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World in 1959, a title blithely if not pointedly ignored in Mère France, where dishes including crawfish are referred to as à la Nantua.

Gallic enthusiasm aside, it’s worth noting that crawfish play a significant role in the cuisines of Scandinavia, where on the first Friday in August people gather outside, sing, eat mass quantities of crawfish and drink prodigious amounts of vodka, beer and aquavit. In that part of the world, the cooler taste of dill (seeds, crowns, leaves and stems) is used to flavor a bouillon of sugared vinegar, beer and water. Cajuns also eat crawfish in public celebrations with plenty of music, beer and booze, which might be the only direct parallel between the two peoples. The most decided culinary contrast is the pungent spices used to season the bouillon in this part of the world. Forget that sissy dill; if you don’t have halved heads of garlic, bay and cayenne in the water, not to mention plenty socks of seasonings, corn, potatoes and whatever else is in the refrigerator, you’re going to be trussed to a tree and someone else is going to take charge.

Fresh crawfish are usually available February through May, but frozen crawfish meat is available year-round. This recipe comes from Howard Mitcham’s wonderful Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), in my less-than-humble opinion the most comprehensive and best-written book about the kaleidoscopic world of southern Louisiana’s music, history, and food.

Crawfish-Eggplant Pie

Melt a stick of butter in a skillet, sauté one small onion, three ribs celery, one small bell pepper and a clove of garlic, all finely chopped. Add the diced meat of 1 large eggplant and cook until soft. Add about a cup of chicken stock, a quarter cup sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”), a pound of peeled crawfish tails and enough bread crumbs to thicken into a wet paste. Season with salt, pepper (cayenne, if you want more heat), thyme and basil, pour into a baking dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 until bubbling. This recipe makes about six servings (over rice) as an entree, works well as a small plate buffet item and is better served warm and best the next day.

Bourdain’s Last Salute Honors Mississippian

One of Anthony Bourdain’s last works is an introduction to Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, originally published in 1975, to be rereleased on June 26. In his tribute, Bourdain calls Mitcham’s cookbook “one of the most influential of my life.”

Dan Simon, founder and publisher of Seven Stories Press said he and his team approached Bourdain because they knew that he was “an admirer of Mitcham.” Bourdain’s culinary career started in the early 1970s in Provincetown, where Mitcham was already a legend. “He was just so terrific,” Simon said. “I think he loved the gusto with which Howard lived his life and cooked and brought it all together.”

A writer, a scholar and an artist as well as the foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great. A name chef during what Bourdain himself called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of food, people, art and lore.

Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times. His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his writings on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seem to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”

James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on 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. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis. For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherency. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”

Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. A May 30, 1934 clipping from “The Pica”, the GHS school newspaper, includes a column by Mitcham (“Rigmarole”) and three poems by Foote. A news article in the same issue notes: “Walker Percy, freshman at the University of North Carolina and member of last year’s graduating class, will journey to Germany for a three months’ tour of that country,” adding that “the tour will be made on foot and on bycicles (sic)”.

Mitcham in Manhattan

After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University as an art student, and at some point, in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery. During this time, he became the model for “the stone-deaf man” in Marguerite Young’s epic work, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Sabina said that during Mitcham’s days in New York, Walker Percy would come to stay with him, often sleeping on the floor in Mitcham’s tiny apartment in the Village.

What quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown.

An editor of ‘The Provincetown Advocate’ described Mitcham as “Artist, block print maker, chef par excellence, pro-beatnik, draughtsman and one of the most talented nuts ever to come into Provincetown.” Mitcham maintained an art gallery on the Cape, painted signs and repaired clocks, once publishing an article on antique clocks in Gentleman’s Quarterly). In the 1960s, Mitcham wrote a column in the Advocate called the “The Cape Tip Gourmet” and another called “The Cape Curmudgeon”. He wrote that the first place he headed when he first arrived in Provincetown, and most likely from then on, was Town Wharf. “It made my heart jump to see the enormous hauls of herring that the trap boats were bringing in,” Mitcham said. “But my gourmet’s heart was broken when I found out that this wonderful fish was being knocked down for two bucks and fifty cents a barrel and shipped off to the cat food factory.”

His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1975 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. 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.”

In Provincetown Mitcham bonded strongly with the Portuguese community and his love for them shines from his works. In his first book, Fishing on the Gulf Coast (1959; Hermit Crab Press), Mitcham claims he contacted the Portuguese Embassy to obtain a recipe, and the Provincetown book has many, many more. “Transplanting the Azores Islanders to Provincetown was a great step forward because they brought with them their beautifully rambunctious cookery, and this husky, euphoric cuisine has quietly worked its way into Cape Cod and New England cookery in general,” he wrote. “I have been observing Portuguese cooks for twenty-five years, and I find that they have the following relative units of measurement: (1) a little, (2) some, (3) a bit more, (4) a lot, (5) plenty, (6) enough.”

The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook includes sections on the history of Provincetown and the Cape Cod itself—the people, the fishing industry and the rich culture that pervades the area—as well as a plenitude of splendid recipes for clams, mussels, the storied Welfleet oysters (en Bienville et Rockefeller of course), snails and the multitude of fishes that crowd the Cape’s waters: cod, striped bass, mackerel, salmon, halibut, bluefish and striped bass. Mitcham also includes his haddock amandine (meuniere). If for no other reason, we should be inordinately proud of Howard Mitcham for easing in a recipe for Creole gumbo in a cookbook focused on Cape Cod. Admittedly, unless you have the sort of budget that allows you to get quahogs on the fly, most of the recipes present an almost insurmountable challenge for any cook south of Hoboken, but Mitcham is a bold, eloquent raconteur with a passion for his subject, and anyone with an ear for good writing, a hunger for good food and a sheer love of life will relish The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook.

Oysters Roffignac

Many of you might know the Roffignac cocktail, a fruity drink that the effete among us pretend to enjoy when they’re seriously jonesing for a beer, but for those of us with a realistic bent we have oysters Roffignac, a roguish and astoundingly good dish. This recipe comes by way of Howard Mitcham, who says the Roffignac, once on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, was the most popular restaurant in antebellum New Orleans, founded by the family of the French nobleman who became the city’s tenth mayor in 1820. Howard claims that oysters Roffignac was the first “baked” oyster dish in New Orleans, and if we can’t believe Howard Mitcham in that regard, then we can’t believe anybody. (Trust me.) You’ll not find many oyster recipes that use red wine, and even fewer using paprika as a principal flavoring, but you’re going to be immeasurably surprised at how wonderful this combination can be. Add this dish to your repertoire as a hearty alternative to a sissy Bienville or Rockefeller.

For four servings:
2 dozen fresh oysters in their shells
1/2 lb. peeled boiled shrimp (about a pound raw in the shell)
A half dozen scallions, finely chopped
About a dozen small button mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon paprika
A dash of cayenne
About a half cup of dry red wine

Clean oysters of mud and hangers-on, shuck and reserve liquid. Heat butter, add scallions, garlic, shrimp, mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are done through. Dissolve cornstarch in about ¼ cup water, add to pan, quickly add wine and oyster liquor as mixture thickens. Top oysters and broil until cooked through. Serve with lemon and parsley.

The Literature of Food and Cooking in the Mississippi Delta: An Overview

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.

Ground Zero

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:

Buttermilk biscuits
Cornbread
Pimiento and cheese
Fried chicken
Barbecued pork
Pound cake
Fruit cobbler
Cornbread dressing
Chicken and dumplings
Sweet potato pie
Banana pudding
Stewed greens

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.

lafcadio hearnHearn 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 cover

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)]

delta-wedding-cover1Then 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)

Periodicals

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.

Newspapers

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.

Craig Claiborne

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 southern cooking cover PPTClaiborne’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.

Howard Mitcham

mitcham bowler PPTNow 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.

Community Cookbooks

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.

Mississippi’s Greatest Chef

A writer, a scholar and an artist as well as the first and foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great but who himself remains shadowed today. A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto, with horns, drums and strings. His Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, written with the same gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts as fully, but as his fellow Mississippian, Creole Gumbo strikes much closer to my heart.

Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times. His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his eloquence on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seems to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”

James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on 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. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis. For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherency. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”

Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. A May 30, 1934 clipping from “The Pica”, the GHS school newspaper, includes a column by Mitcham (“Rigmarole”) and three poems by Foote. A news article in the same issue notes: “Walker Percy, freshman at the University of North Carolina and member of last year’s graduating class, will journey to Germany for a three months’ tour of that country,” adding that “the tour will be made on foot and on bycicles (sic)”. After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University. As an art student at LSU in 1940, Mitcham came to the attention of the Baton Rouge Advocate for befriending a Negro janitor on campus, Felton Coleman, who according to the newspaper article Mitcham “forced” to paint. Reading the account of this incident is almost painful, since it is most likely from our perspective that little coercion was involved at all. Instead, Coleman probably expressed an interest in painting while he was sweeping a studio, and Mitcham, far from ordering him to paint, instead gave Coleman a canvas and paint to take home to his “cabin”, where he soon “spent his evenings . . . painting by the light of a kerosene lamp, intent neighbors (crowding) at his elbows.” A year later, one of Coleman’s paintings, the “brilliantly-colored and strongly composed ‘Baptism’, appeared by invitation at the annual exhibition of Louisiana artists at the capitol.” (The painting is now on permanent exhibit at LSU.) “Coleman can be the greatest artist of his race, at least in the South,” Mitcham is quoted as saying. “It’s a pity that the opportunities to learn are not in the reach of more of his people. They all have talent. Painting gives them a way to express themselves, and they’ve got a great deal to say.” It’s worth noting that to advocate more education for blacks in the South in the 40s was progressive, if not radical.

At some point in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery. During this time, he became the model for “the stone deaf man” in Marguerite Young’s epic work, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Sabina said that during Mitcham’s days in New York, Walker Percy would come to stay with him, often sleeping on the floor in Mitcham’s tiny apartment in the Village.

A little over a decade later, Mitcham’s support for civil rights was confirmed in another medium. Among the papers of Dr. James Silver at the University of Mississippi is a letter from Mitcham to Silver dated 1956 written in a strong articulate script thanking him for a letter and clipping from “the Jackson, Tenn. newspaper” and his vigorous support of Silver’s stance against a closed society. “You have certainly flung down the gauntlet in a manner that was badly needed,” Mitcham wrote. “I only hope you don’t get a potshard in the urn with your name on it. To defend freedom of thought and expression in Mississippi these days is almost suicidal, they’re more afraid of truth than any other one thing, just can’t afford to face it, or the house of cards will fall down.” The year before, Howard received a letter from Faulkner thanking him for a painting.

Dear Mitcham,
    The picture is here. It was all right, not bent but arch-ed a little but the paint did not crack. I flattened it with careful pressure, am trying to get a frame, something solid behind it. I will let the Buie people hang it for a while if they wish.
    I like it. I have it propped in a chair at eyelevel across the room from my typewriter where I can look up at now and then.
    I don’t know where rumor of illness came from. It’s not mine though. I had measles and such as a child but nothing since. Thank you for condolence though, and many thanks for the painting. I like plenty of dense color.
                                             Yours sincerely
                                             Faulkner

It’s not known if the painting ever did hang in the Buie Museum, but it is still at Rowan Oak. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, pointing out the date as well as the elements of the painting (a Tokyo newspaper, a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a pipe) said, “Mitcham probably painted this to mark the publication of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches by Hokuseido Press in Japan on April 1. Faulkner also traveled to Japan that August on a goodwill tour.”

Mitcham’s first book, Fishing on the Gulf Coast, was published by Hermit Crab Press in 1959. “I don’t know much about fishing,” Mitcham confesses in his preface, but that doesn’t stop him from offering instructions on how to catch dozens of fresh and salt water species using methods anyone on the Gulf would use now. But Fishing on the Gulf Coast, in the final analysis, is a cookbook, Mitcham’s first, and it establishes his life-long love for seafood. Fishing includes many recipes you’ll find in later works (bouillabaisse, court bouillon, pompano en papillote and, of course a gumbo, in this instance from Antoine’s, no less). While the recipes are elaborate (and nowadays quite expensive to make), they’re easy to follow; they make perfect sense to anyone from south of I-10, with procedures for such things as smoking mullet (much beer-drinking seems to be involved) and incredibly detailed maps of the Gulf Coast along Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle.

What makes Fishing on the Gulf Coast even more of a treasure are Mitcham’s beautiful woodcut prints of fish and marine life. Art (along with a passion for antique clocks and clockworks) provided Mitcham with a fruitful outlet for his talents throughout his life. The 1963 summer and winter issues of The Carolina Quarterly featured two portfolios with six of his woodcuts prints. Like his fellow Mississippi artist Walter Anderson, who also made woodcut prints, much of Mitcham’s work reflects a strong interest in classical mythology. This is nowhere more evident than in his Four Tales from Byzantium (Wattle Grove Press: 1964). Incredulously enough, Wattle Grove Press was a small publishing house founded in Launceston,Tasmania by Professor Rolf Hennequel in 1958. According to a pamphlet issued by the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery in Launceston, Hennequel stated that the purpose of the press was “. . . for printing unusual literature, which could not possibly be launched commercially. This was—and is—our only purpose, which also includes the desire to help young writers.” How Mitcham connected with this small, progressive press in a part of the world that could be considered almost the antipodes of Mississippi is an as-yet unfathomable mystery. Somewhat later, the book was re-issued by Hermit Crab Press in New Orleans.

The quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown. An editor of The Provincetown Advocate described Mitcham as “Artist, block print maker, chef par excellence, pro-beatnik, draughtsman and one of the most talented ‘nuts’ ever to come into Provincetown.” Mitcham maintained an art gallery on the Cape, painted signs and repaired clocks (one correspondent claims he published an article on antique clocks in Gentleman’s Quarterly). In the 1960s, Mitcham wrote a column in the Advocate called the “The Cape Tip Gourmet” and another called “The Cape Curmudgeon”. He wrote that the first place he headed when he first arrived in Provincetown, and most likely from then on, was Town Wharf. “It made my heart jump to see the enormous hauls of herring that the trap boats were bringing in,” Mitcham said. “But my gourmet’s heart was broken when I found out that this wonderful fish was being knocked down for two bucks and fifty cents a barrel and shipped off to the cat food factory.”

His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1976 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. 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.”

In Provincetown, Mitcham bonded strongly with the local Portuguese community, where he made many deep and lasting friendships and his love for them shines from his works. In Fishing on the Gulf Coast, Mitcham claims he contacted the Portuguese Embassy to obtain a recipe, and The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook contains many, many more. “Transplanting the Azores Islanders to Provincetown was a great step forward because they brought with them their beautifully rambunctious cookery, and this husky, euphoric cuisine has quietly worked its way into Cape Cod and New England cookery in general,” he wrote. “I have been observing Portuguese cooks for twenty-five years, and I find that they have the following relative units of measurement: (1) a little, (2) some, (3) a bit more, (4) a lot, (5) plenty, (6) enough.”

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, its music. Reading Creole Gumbo, you discover Mitcham the bohemian, a Falstaff in the French Quarter, ebullient in his adoration for life and the bounty of the waters.  Creole Gumbo could well serve as a textbook for New Orleans cuisine, since it not only includes the most recognized dishes of the city with authoritative recipes usually garnered from reliable sources but more so, it places the foods of the city within the demographics that shaped them. 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. He also describes other people that combined in the great cauldron: the native Choctaws, the immigrant French, Spanish, Albanian, Sicilian, Chinese and Filipino. Mitcham also offers a “Short Biography of a Creole Building”, that being the Skyscraper on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, where he lived with his friends, artists Johnny Donnels and Maggi Hartnett, noting that the building was also home to Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner during the 1920s and the site of jam sessions by legendary jazz artists like Kid Thomas, George Lewis, Percy Humphries and Lewis Nelson. Mitcham had an apartment in the 600 block of St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. His longtime friend, photographer Johnny Donnels, lived on the floor below, and on the efficiency stove in Donnels’ apartment was where Mitcham tested his recipes. “If it didn’t kill anybody or make anybody sick,” Donnels said, “we put it in the book.”

mitcham_creole_remoulade_whIn her Sept. 12, 1979 article in The New York Times, “A Library of Creole-Cajun Cooking”, Mimi Sheraton said that Creole Gumbo is “a delightful book with excellent recipes for the gumbo, jambalaya, crab, shrimp, crawfish and other seafood dishes that distinguish both the Creole and Cajun kitchens.” She praises Mitcham’s “beautifully simple recipe for the pungent barbecued shrimp of the type made at Pascal’s Manale restaurant and some unusual folklore dishes such as the Chimney Sweep’s shrimp boil that Mitcham and his Guild of Chimney Sweepers (named in honor of a dinner that Charles Lamb hosted for the London sweeps) hosted yearly for French Quarter bohemians during the 1950s and 1960s.”

“At our last big party we boiled 400 pounds of shrimp and 400 fat crabs for 200 guests and we drank eight thirty-gallon kegs of beer,” Mitcham said. “For music we had Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers, the famous old gut-bucket jazz group from Preservation Hall, and the Olympia Funeral Marching Band”.

Sheraton notes that Creole Gumbo, like its predecessor The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, deals (almost) exclusively with seafood, for which Mitcham had an avowed and lifelong passion, but it’s worth pointing out that with few exceptions (bananas Foster springs to mind) the recipes we associate most with New Orleans are seafood-based: trout amandine meuniere, oysters Rockefeller, seafood gumbo, pompano en papillote, the aforementioned barbecued shrimp (which, it must be said, resembles no other type of Southern barbecue) and many others. This emphasis on seafood provides a convenient point for a brief comparison with The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. Two points must be emphasized: first, that one city sits on the edge of the North Atlantic, the other at the mouth of the Mississippi River; secondly, the ethnic make-up of places, New Orleans a hodge-podge of race and nationalities, Provincetown a New England enclave with an important Portuguese community. Geography plays an important role in the types of seafood used. Recipes for clams of all sorts and the fish of the North Atlantic (cod, haddock, bluefish, etc.) dominate the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, while the emphasis in Creole Gumbo is on oysters, shrimp and such fish that thrive in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico (redfish, snapper, speckled trout, etc.) as well as the denizens of the fresh and brackish water environments along the Gulf: alligators, snapping turtles and catfish.

In 1981, The Hermit Crab Press published Maya O Maya! Rambunctious Fables of Yucatan. According to a synopsis by Creighton University, which owns one of the 500 published copies, the book is “a collection of humorous parodies of ancient lore about gods, statues, and rites. The first, ‘The World’s Strongest Cocktail,’ presents Ixnib, the god who invented the drink balche. The woodcut figures are reminiscent of Mayan statues in museums.”

Mitcham’s final, and in many ways his most personal book, is Clams, Mussels, Oysters, Scallops, and Snails: A Cookbook and a Memoir (1990). Were we to judge by this book alone we might well concur that Mitcham’s favorite food among all the denizens of the sea is the clam, since well over half the book is a paean to this bivalve mollusk, it’s biology, its history as a foodstuff (particularly in New England) and recipes from all over the world. Mitcham delves into the American “Chowder War” (New York/Long Island tomatoes vs “Yankee”—New England—cream) and of course offers several Portuguese recipes. In addition, somewhat surprisingly to me because the idea of Mitcham as riveted to a New Orleans/Provincetown axis, he reveals himself as a far-ranging traveler, journeying not only to Portugal itself, but to southern Spain, the Pacific Northwest, Philadelphia and Chicago. He also introduces a cadre of chefs who were very much his fellow celebrities in the culinary world of his day: Joseph Poon, Louis Szathmary and Jeff Smith, among others. Many of his recipes for oysters are repeated from Creole Gumbo, which given their excellence is quite excusable, and he covers scallops, periwinkles and moon snails deftly and with expertise. As always, Mitcham’s style is light, breezy and wry, a delight to read. It’s in this book we also come to know many of the people who make up his world, an off-beat collection of people who clustered around Howard as the cynosure of a starry sky.

Mitcham shared his days  between New Orleans and Provincetown, where he worked in local restaurants. He also became very much a fixture in the town; Jan Kelly, who wrote a food column for The Provincetown Advocate with Mitcham for years, described him as “brilliant, a great art lover and so well-read that there wasn’t a literary or mythical reference that he didn’t know. He was an absolute genius, terribly complicated at times, but never boring.” 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.

(My profound and affectionate thanks to Sabina Mitcham Donnamario for her friendship and help in writing this article. Thank you, Sabina.)

Mitcham at Rowan Oak

A writer, scholar and artist as well as the first and still foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great but who himself remains shadowed today. A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, we should remember Mitcham well. His Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretention alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, written with the same gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts as fully, but as his fellow Mississippian, Creole Gumbo strikes much closer to my heart.

Photo courtesy of Melanie Addington

As an artist, Mitcham printed his own woodcuttings, harnessed watercolor and dabbled in oils. As a man of boundless spirit and generosity, he sent one of his paintings to a writer in Oxford he very much admired, and received this letter in response. It’s not known if the painting ever did hang in the Buie Museum, but the painting is still at Rowan Oak. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, pointing out the date (1955) as well as the elements of the painting (a Tokyo newspaper, a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a pipe) said, “Mitcham probably painted this to mark the publication of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches by Hokuseido Press in April, and Faulkner traveled to Japan that August on a goodwill tour.”

Image courtesy of Sabina Mitcham Donnamario

 

 

A Falstaff in the French Quarter

The first (and still foremost) chef of note from Mississippi was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian from Winona named Howard Mitcham. A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain (of all people) called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a writer, scholar and an artist, we should remember Mitcham well. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook (1976), written with a cheerful, gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts, but as his brother Mississippian, Mitcham’s Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978) strikes much closer to my heart, a work that stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretention alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore.

Creole Gumbo is 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 this book, Mitcham celebrates his love for the kaleidoscopic, carefree world of the Crescent City: its food, its history and, astoundingly, given that Mitcham himself became deaf when he was 16, its music. Reading Creole Gumbo, you encounter Mitcham the bohemian, the Falstaff of the French Quarter, ebullient in his adoration for the bounty of life. The work could well serve as a textbook for New Orleans cuisine, since it not only includes the most recognized dishes of the city with authoritative recipes garnered from reliable sources, but more so it places the foods of the city within the demographics that shaped them. 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. He also describes other people whose foods melded in the great cauldron at the mouth of the Father of Waters: the native Choctaw peoples, the French,the Spanish, British, Albanians, Sicilians, Chinese and Filipinos. Mitcham also offers a “Short Biography of a Creole Building”, that being the Skyscraper on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, where he lived with his friends, artists Johnny Donnels and Maggi Hartnett, noting that the building was also home to Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner during the 1920s and the site of jam sessions by legendary jazz artists like Kid Thomas, George Lewis, Percy Humphries and Lewis Nelson.

In her Sept. 12, 1979 article in The New York Times, “A Library of Creole-Cajun Cooking”, Mimi Sheraton said that Creole Gumbo is “a delightful book with excellent recipes for the gumbo, jambalaya, crab, shrimp, crawfish and other seafood dishes that distinguish both the Creole and Cajun kitchens.” She praises Mitcham’s “beautifully simple recipe for the pungent barbecued shrimp of the type made at Pascal’s Manale restaurant” as well as  “unusual folklore dishes” such as the Chimney Sweep’s shrimp boil that Mitcham and his Guild of Chimney Sweepers (named in honor of a dinner that Charles Lamb hosted for the London sweeps) hosted yearly for French Quarter bohemians during the 1950s and 1960s. “At our last big party,” Howard writes, “we boiled 400 pounds of shrimp and 400 fat crabs for 200 guests and we drank eight thirty-gallon kegs of beer,” Mitcham said. “For music we had Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers, the famous old gut-bucket jazz group from Preservation Hall, and the Olympia Funeral Marching Band”. Howard couldn’t hear the music, but he saw the people laugh and dance, watched them eat and be happy together. He was in his element. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”

In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain writes, “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.”