Winifred’s Cookbook

The culinary history of Jackson, Mississippi is filled with colorful characters, including one who exemplifies the genteel aspects of the city in the early decades of this past century.

Winifred Green Cheney was born into a very old Jackson family; originally from Maryland, the Greens moved to Jackson in the early 19th century. Winifred was born in the second family home at 647 North State Street in 1913. She graduated magna cum laude from Millsaps with a bachelor of arts in Latin in 1933, and on October 25, 1934, after a 7-year engagement, she married Reynolds Cheney, who became one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. The couple had three children: Reverend Reynolds S. Cheney II, W. Garner Cheney and Mrs. Patrick (Winifred C.?) Barron.

While Winifred, in almost every respect, was a model for a well-to-do woman of social standing in the mid-century South (active in her church and in social charities, etc.), in another she was not: Winifred was a writer. In the course of her life, she wrote (about cooking, mainly) for such well-known publications as The National Observer, The Rotarian, Southern World and, of course, Southern Living. She published two cookbooks (both by Oxmoor House), Cooking for Company (1985), and the truly wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976).

Winifred’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a treasure-trove of splendid recipes, but as a whole is a tutorial of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied; the ingredients are often expensive, and the times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, one of the most frequent critiques of the book is how complicated, indeed “fussy” the recipes are, many often calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients.

Many of the recipes are heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as many from “my great-grandmother … from Lone Star Plantation in the Mississippi Delta, written in her fine Spencerian hand.” (“But there were no directions,” Winifred adds. “I found this to be true with most of the old ‘receipts’ in her walnut escritoire papeterie.”) She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors: Odel Herbert’s Carrot Casserole, Vivienne Wilson’s Asparagus and Carrot Escallop, Claudia Whitney’s Meat Spaghetti, Zollie Kimbrough’s Shrimp Casserole, Linda Lacefield’s Apricot Stuffing for Duck, Becky Voght’s Caramel Icing; and many, many more.

Winifred’s cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson as well as the Middle South, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”), and a preface by Eudora herself, “A Note on the Cook” in which she writes:

“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707. Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality.In good weather, but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.

When Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, attending Mr. Weston’s ball, is seated at the supper, she surveys the table with a cry, ‘How shall we ever recollect half these dishes?’ When I sit down to Sunday dinner at Winifred’s, I feel just like Miss Bates. What guest could not? But it now becomes possible for us to recollect the dishes we’ve dined on there. The cook herself has recollected the recipes for them in her own cookbook. It’s like another extension of Winifred Cheney’s gracious hospitality; she has added another leaf to her table.”

The Great American Writers’ 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.

 This is not the first and perhaps not the last time that I have mentioned my favorite tribute to a well-known writer whose name was associated with the preparation of a cookbook. In the early 1970’s a cookbook was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson, Mississippi, the sale of which would benefit the Jackson Symphony. Eudora Welty was prevailed upon to write a charming dissertation on Southern Cooking and in reciprocation, the league was called upon to dedicate the first recipe to the author. It was called “Squash Eudora.”

[Note: “Squash Eudora” was originally published in Winifred Green Cheeny’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976), which also includes an introduction by Welty. It does not appear in the Symphony League’s 1971 cookbook.]

A Culinary Classic from Water Valley

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook spotlights small town Main Street South and focuses on good, real people creating real good food and helping to make the world a better place. With this book the authors, entrepreneur Alexe van Beuren and chef Dixie Grimes, celebrate their home in north Mississippi. Like many towns in the rural South, Water Valley has languished; once busy squares and streets are lined with broken sidewalks and historic buildings are being sold for bricks. But in Water Valley, community is in focus, and though the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery has become a vibrant element in the town, Alexe and Dixie will be the first to tell you that the B.T.C. Grocery did not revive Water Valley: “Water Valley revived us.” Their book pulses with heart and glows with the warmth of their revival: a cornucopia of extraordinary food, exceptional writing and bountiful spirit.

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook often ranges far from the table, but first and foremost it is about food, beautiful food. Chef Dixie Grimes cut her teeth in local restaurants, and her talents are enriched by time. In the B.T.C. cookbook, Dixie’s foods can be divided into two broad categories: traditional Mississippi recipes, many she learned in the Oxford kitchen of her grandmother Vetra Stephens; and progressive dishes that are the product of years of experience and an exceptional feel for the ingredients and how they work together in any given recipe. Dixie says that the food of Mississippi is too easily overlooked or dismissed because of its simplicity and her respect for and propagation of the traditional ingredients and time-tested methods of Southern cooking are a dominant theme.

Any Mississippian, especially one from north Mississippi, will feel as if they’re at their own grandmother’s table with many of these dishes, or at any family reunion or church homecoming, where you’re bound to find such favorites as three bean salad, chicken spaghetti and sweet potato pie. Dixie includes a perfect cornbread recipe (yes, of course it has bacon grease), along with instructions on how to swipe your hot skillet with that grease before pouring in the batter. Such details distinguish a really good cookbook from one that’s simply rote recitation with pretty pictures. (Speaking of which, take it from someone who knows; food photography is tricky and takes a lot of care and thought. My hat is off to Ed Anderson for his beautiful work in The B.T.C Old-Fashioned Cookbook.)

With the corn bread recipe comes one for corn bread dressing, a Southern staple, along with a dictum for our fellow countrymen beyond the Mason-Dixon Line to understand that “There is no stuffing in the South.” Dixie makes her Thousand Island dressing with mayonnaise and chili sauce, tomato sauce, ketchup and other things just as everyone did before Wishbone. (Note: in central Mississippi, this same concoction is called “comeback”, and is used on anything you can put on a plate.) Yellow “crookneck” squash casserole is another summer standard, and let it be known that Dixie, like her fellow Mississippian Craig Claiborne, offers a chicken spaghetti recipe as well as one for pickled eggs. It is also altogether fitting and proper that the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery’s pimento and cheese is “red rind” cheese with pimento, which for me brings to mind the vivid image of a hoop of red rind cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas. Being in Ole Miss’ back yard, of course the B.T.C. has a Hotty Toddy Beer Chili, which is a best-seller even when the Rebs aren’t slugging through the S.E.C.

When Dixie spreads her wings, magical dishes come to the table. Water Valley is in the Catfish Belt, and the book offers three recipes. One, with a nod to our neighbors in New Orleans (there’s a grillades recipe as well), is a blackened catfish that Dixie takes to higher ground with a Tabasco beurre blanc tanged with lime. This recipe is an exquisite example of what a top-rate chef who knows her methods and ingredients can do with a modern-day classic. Dixie’s honey pecan catfish is also a splendid work of innovation, and her catfish gumbo will stand up to any in the South. Her asparagus strawberry salad is an inspired combination of seasonal favorites, her watermelon salad (Water Valley’s Watermelon Carnival draws over twenty thousand people every year) is just brilliant, and her Brussels sprouts casserole is a winner. The roasted pear and zucchini soup was featured in The New York Times, so I’m pretty sure it’s good, too.

Chef Dixie shares the B.T.C. kitchen with sous chef Lori Ward, the Breakfast Queen of Water Valley, and with Cora Turnage Ray, the in-house baker and owner of Mississippi Mud Bakery. Cora, a native “Vallian” makes everything from scratch. Cora’s recipes tend to run to the traditional as they very well should in a small Mississippi town, with “old school” three-layer cakes such as coconut, strawberry and Lane, but she too breaks with tradition; her sweet potato pie rests in a rosemary crust, and her chess pie includes buttermilk. More notably, her “fried” pies are baked, “a practice that sets many an old-timer nodding and saying that’s how his or her mother did it,” resulting in light, flavorful pastries. But that’s not all; Alexe and Dixie put another leaf in their table by sharing the recipes of friends, neighbors and significant others. They include Coulter Fussell’s red beans and rice, Miss Vetra’s chicken noodle soup, Mrs. Jo Turnage’s banana pudding and Cliff Lawson’s hominy San Juan. Alexe’s husband, Kagan Coughlin, gets into the act with a pickle recipe, but Kagan’s biggest contribution is his renovation of the old building, which took five years and uncounted hours, working nights and weekends cleaning, moving stairwells, restoring thousands of square feet of heart pine flooring, throwing up walls, installing plumbing, building counters and hauling in appliances from all over north Mississippi. (Did I mention he makes pickles?)  The writing is in Alexe’s voice; warm, often intimate, charming in its candor and gentle in its humor. The introductory essay, “Welcome to the B.T.C.”, sets the stage for an adventure. “Everybody Asks” explains what B.T.C. stands for (and more), and the three essays in the “Soup” section, “Winter”, “Summer”, and “Fall (a.k.a Football)” are delightful. My favorites are “Where Food Comes From”, “Friends and Neighbors”, “Let There Be Leeks: Brother Ken and Co.”, “Billy Ray Brown” and “Mississippi: A Long, Slow Seduction”, which offers a thought-provoking outsider’s view of my homeland.

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook stands out in the motley crew of current works on food with both recipes and writing, but what lifts the work to an even higher plane is that this book has voice, and not just one. Most cookbooks aren’t written so much as they are compiled by some editorial body with recipes and accompanying quotes from the purported author, who is usually some griddle Napoleon or oven Antoinette with a sufficiently high media profile to justify the printing costs. Unlike those efforts, this work isn’t eaten up with ego: there is no “I, me, my”; instead you find “we, us, and ours”. Any book of length written about food should mirror a time and place, and this work does all that in full. Alexe and Dixie set out to write about “the magical place where we have found ourselves” and “to give back to the people and community that has given us so much”, echoing a welcome spirit unheard in a very long time, a spirit of independence, enterprise and love.