Food–unlike guns, whores, or horses–rarely plays a significant role in fiction; food enters the narrative for a specific function.
Adam Gopnik lists four kinds of fictional food: “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.”
As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character (and they seem predominate) Gopnik serves up a soupcon of Proust:
“Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”
In both Faulkner and Welty, food is a signature of collective character. This Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Welty in Delta Wedding, a lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s
Though three main meals are described–a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards–people are eating all the time on almost every page of Welty’s book. This listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household in the South during the Coolidge administration.
Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made 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 cheese, 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” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, 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, watermelons and greens.
As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes to Welty, who is subtle, understated, and knows food as few writers do, it’s easy to miss things, which is an excellent excuse (should you need one) to read DeltaWedding again, if not for the first time.
The food and cooking of the Mississippi Delta is for the most part typical of that elsewhere in Mississippi and throughout the Mid-South, but the Delta is distinguished by way of the cultural influence of New Orleans. 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 until the late 20th century until Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme drew a distinction. Prudhomme, like every other New Orleans food writer, stands on the shoulders of Lafcadio Hearn.
Hearn moved to New Orleans in 1877, and lived there 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, but he is credited with “inventing” New Orleans as an exotic and mysterious place.
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 Southern 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.
Then we have Delta Wedding. Welty didn’t include a lot of food in most of her fiction; you have the green tomato pickles in Why I Live at the P.O., for instance, but she wrote introductions for four cookbooks: The Country Gourmet, by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in 1960; The Jackson Cookbook, published by the Jackson Symphony League in 1971; The Southern Hospitality Cookbook, written by her friend and neighbor Winifred Green Cheney in 1976; and Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, written by Hosford Fontaine in 1981. Welty also knew the importance of food as a significant element of human character, and in Delta Wedding, people are eating all the time. It is after all a wedding.
The foods mentioned include: “Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane, homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it, the patty cake gift for George Fairchild to eat with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him, licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger stage planks, bananas and cheeses, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”:, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopias (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelon and greens.”
Delta Review (Winter 1963-64)-v. 6, no. 9 (Nov./Dec. 1969); the self-titled “Magazine of the Mid-South”, Delta Scene (Nov. 1973- 1986?), and The Delta Review published articles about literature, history, and such; 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 and by the 1960s had a circulation high of 1.3 million. From the lifestyle and home life pages of Progressive Farmer rose the largest and most successful regional publication in history, Southern Living, Living, where Southern food was, is and always will be a predominant theme. The number of recipes the magazine has published from readers in the Mississippi Delta is likely quite vast.
There are many weekly newspapers in the Delta, The Deer Creek Pilot being foremost among them, of course, and three predominant dailies, the Delta Democrat-Times, founded in 1938, and the metro dailies of The Times-Picayune ( founded 1837) of New Orleans and The Appeal/Commercial Appeal (founded 1841). Food and food writing was very much an incidental subject in most newspapers in the Delta, indeed across the country, until a boy from Sunflower County, Mississippi changed everybody’s mind.
It’s not such a stretch for me to include The New York Times Cookbook in this survey of the literature of Delta food and cooking. If I were to have left Craig Claiborne out of this talk, I’m sure some of you might have pulled a skillet out of your purse and come at me, and I’d be getting ugly emails until New Year’s.
Craig Claiborne is a towering culinary figure; he 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.
By far the most important resource for the foods of the Mississippi Delta are community cookbooks published by various organizations, the earliest dating from 1912. These cookbooks are the best historical record of foods and cooking in the region; not only that, but many if not most of them contain far more than just recipes: you’ll also find historical information about churches, or schools or social organizations (ladies clubs, Rotary, etc.) that were very much a part of the town or city of their time.
This is the earliest cookbook I could locate from the Delta, the Twentieth Century Cookbook/Tried and True Recipes by the Young Women’s Guild of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Greenville, January, 1902. The introduction refers to “A number of these (recipes) which accomplished cooks will find new and pleasing are contributed by well-wishers in New Orleans, justly famed for its cuisine Creole (note Hearn’s title here). We believe these Creole dainties will be found unique and as useful as the more common ones used to make this Greenville cook book a thoroughly complete and valuable aid to its friends and purchasers.” The book sold for fifty cents, which was a lot in those days.
In Jackson, people make a big deal of the white fruitcake that Eudora Welty wrote about in her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, first issued by Symphony League of Jackson in 1971 and followed by a well-deserved 30th anniversary issue. In a pamphlet issued many years later, Eudora greatly expanded on the original recipe. On page 9 of The Delta Cookbook, you’ll find recipes for a white and a black fruitcake. Only the black fruitcake has whiskey in the recipe, but the white fruitcake recipe in The Jackson Cookbook includes bourbon.
Undoubtedly the best-known cookbook to come from the Mississippi Delta is Bayou Cuisine (1970). Sales figures on books are hard to come by; usually only the publishing house will have them, and when I called St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Indianola asking about sales on this book, they were appropriately ambiguous. A figure of “over 100,000 copies sold” is mentioned in the 1997 sequel, Best of Bayou Cuisine, but I consider that figure very low indeed.
Another Delta cookbook stands out as a significant work for a higher reckoning of merit. The Sharecropper, put out by the Central Delta Academy Parent-Teacher organization in 1987, elevates the community cookbook to the realm of art. In her later years, Ethel Wright Mohamed was known internationally as the Grandma Moses of stitchery. But this native of Fame, Mississippi, spent most of her life raising a family and tending to customers at the store she ran with her husband, Hassan Mohamed, in the Delta town of Belzoni.
When Hassan passed away in 1965, Ethel picked up a needle and embroidery floss and began documenting her life: Hassan telling folktales to the children; their housekeeper, Mittie, tending to the stove; the ledger she kept at H. Mohamed General Merchandise. She called her embroideries “memory pictures”. In 1974 one of Ethel’s memory pictures was featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. Ethel passed away in 1992.
The food and cooking of the Mississippi Delta is not as distinct and certainly not as famous as its music, but is an important portal to its history and character.
Books by Mississippi Authors, Organizations and Others of Interest
Butler, Jack, Jack’s Skillet. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1997.
The Catfish Institute (Belzoni, Miss.), The Catfish cookbook : twenty favorite recipes. Belzoni, Miss.: Catfish Institute, 199-?
Claiborne, Craig, A Feast Made for Laughter. New York: Doubleday, 1982.
Claiborne, Craig, Southern Cooking. New York: Wings books, 1987.
Culberson, Linda Crawford, The Catfish Book. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 1991. (“A Muscadine book.”)
Davis, Eva, Mississippi Mixin’s. (A collection of recipes used in Ms. Davis’ daily radio show, “Court Square”, a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg). Illustrations by Andrew Bucci.
Delta Air Lines Activities Committee, Delta’s flying gourmet : favorite recipes of Delta Airline employees. (Jackson, Mississippi, 1981) Lenexa, Kan.: Cookbook Publishers, c. 1981. (Note: Delta is the sixth-oldest operating airline by foundation date, and the oldest airline still operating in the United States. The company’s history can be traced back to Huff Daland Dusters, founded in 1924 in Macon, Georgia as a crop dusting operation. The company moved to Monroe, Louisiana and was later renamed Delta Air Services, in reference to the nearby Mississippi Delta region, and commenced passenger services on June 17, 1929.)
Foose, Martha, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea. Clarkson Potter, 2008.
—————. A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2011.
Luckett, Lady W.O., My Fare. Clarksdale, Miss., 1958.
Metcalf, Gayden and Hays, Charlotte, Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide To Hosting the Perfect Funeral Mirimax, 2005.
Owen, Renelda L., “When People Were Nice and Things Were Pretty”: A Culinary History of Merigold: A Mississippi Delta Town. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, March 14, 2010.
Pate, Alisa L., Treasured Family Favorites. Cleveland, Miss.: published by the author, 1998.
Pickett, Susan. Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey through the Soul of the South. University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA, January, 2013.
Pitre, Glen, The Crawfish Book: the story of man and mudbugs starting in 25,000 B.C. and ending with the batch just put on to boil. Glen Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. (“A Muscadine book.”)
Potts, Bobby, Louisiana and Mississippi plantation cookbook : authentic Louisiana and Mississippi recipes. New Orleans: Express Pub. Co., 197-?
Reed, Julia, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008.
Sherrer, Rudy, Memories: Cooking with Rudy. Greenwood, Miss.: published by the author, 19–?
Simpson, Frank, Jr, Marguerite Watkins Goodman, Ken Kugle. Accent One, A Book of Recipes: Treasures from Our Kitchen to Yours. Accent Enterprises Inc., Bentonia, Ms., 1985.
Starr, Kathy, The Soul of Southern Cooking. Jackson, Mississippi; University Press of Mississippi, 1989. (Note: “Reminds me of my childhood in Mississippi. . . an excellent contribution to the history of black foodways and culture” –Craig Claiborne)
Wilson, Denise, Family Secrets. Greenville, Ms., 1986.
All Saints Episcopal Guild, The Inverness Cookbook. Inverness All Saints Episcopal Church, 196-?.
Aid Society of the Tutweiler Presbyterian Church, The Southern Cook Book. (Tutweiler, Miss., 1913.
Anguila Methodist Women, Just Heavenly: A Collection of Recipes. Morris Press: 2004. Anguila, Miss.
Auxiliary of the Beppo Arnold Knowles Post of the American Legion, The Delta’s Best Cook Book, Recommended by the Delta’s Best Cooks. Greenville, Miss., 194?
The Catholic Ladies Group, Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church, Cleveland, Miss., Divine Tastes. Collierville, TN : Fundcraft Publishing, 2003.
Central Delta Academy Parent-Teacher Organization, The Sharecropper. Central Delta Academy PTA: Inverness, Ms. 1987. (Illustrated with reproductions and descriptions of embroidery by Ethel Wright Mohamed)
Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort. Cooking with C.A.R.E: A Collection of Recipes by Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort. 2008. http://www.charlestonartscenter.com.
Church of God (Itta Bena or Greenwood?), Cooking ‘Round the World and at Home. (no date given)
Church of the Holy Trinity. Restoration Recipes. Vicksburg, Miss., Church of the Holy Trinity.
Cleveland Community Theatre, Tastes of the theatre. Cleveland, Miss, 1996.
Cleveland Garden Club, Taste Buds. Cleveland, Miss.: The Club, 1968.
Cleveland State Bank, Our Best Home Cooking : a collection of recipes. Cleveland, Miss., 19–?
Bolivar Medical Center, A cause worth cooking for: a collection of recipes. Cleveland, Miss., 2006.
Coahoma Women’s Club, Coahoma Cooking: Every Day and Sunday. Coahoma, Miss., 1952.
County Day School (Marks, Miss), Mothers Club. Our Delta Dining. Marks, Miss.: The Club, 1979.
Crawford Street United Methodist Church (Vicksburg, Miss.), The most unique marvelous yummy fantastic cookbook ever! (United Methodist Youth Fellowship) Walter’s Cookbooks; Waseca, MN, 1990?
Crawford Street United Methodist Church (Vicksburg, Miss.), Treasures. Agape Church School Class, Vicksburg, Miss., Nov., 1975.
Culture Club of Indianola, Favorite Recipes. Indianola, Miss., 1957.
Daughters of the American Revolution Mississippi,State Society. The DAR Recipe Book. Place of publication not identified : Mississippi Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1967.
Delta Rice Promotions Committee. Between the Levees. Cleveland, Ms.: 1994.
Deer Creek Mother’s Club, Cookin’ with the Creek Kearney, Nb.: Morris Press Cookbooks, 2002.
Demareé, Troye. Kitchen Table Bridge: A Collection of More than 500 Treasured Recipes from Family, Friends, and some of My Own, edited by Beard, Ann Phillips Adamsville, Tenn.: Keepsake Cookbooks, 2000. [Strayhorn, Ms., Tate County]
Duncan Academy Patrons’ League, The Best in Cooking in Bolivar County. Duncan, Mississippi/Chicago, Illinois: Women’s Clubs Publishing Co. 1985.
Earnest Workers of the Presbyterian Church, Earnest Workers’ Cookbook (revised edition). Greenwood, Miss., 1921.
Easy to Do, Great to Serve Recipes. Clarksdale, MS: Clarksdale, Miss.: Mississippi Madness, 1995.
Episcopal Church Woman, “Lead us not into temptation …” Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Greenwood, Ms., 1983 (?).
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Greenwood, Miss), Christian Women. Christians Cooking. Collierville, Tenn.: Fundcraft Publishing, Inc, 1980.
First United Pentecostal Church (Yazoo City, Miss), Ladies Auxiliary. What’s Cookin’ in Yazoo City. Kearney, Neb.: Cookbooks by Morris Press, 1996.
Rolling Fork United Methodist Church, Feeding the Flock. Rolling Fork, Miss. Morris Press: 2003.
Temptations, Presbyterian Day School, Cleveland, Ms.
The Shelby Woman’s Club, Proof of the Pudding Recipes. (Collected Recipes by The Shelby Woman’s Club, Shelby, MS. (Notes: “It is the belief of the compilers of this cook book that the eating of food prepared by the recipes printed between its covers will give only pleasure. For each recipe has been tested and tried and adapted to give complete satisfaction of the gourmet giving it. Some recipes are recent originals. Some are copied verbatim with credit given to the source. Some are hundreds of years old, having been passed from one generation to the next and now written for the first time. Each recipe is as the person who gave it wrote it. The abbreviations or symbols used may vary, but are clearly understood by good cooks.”)
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Yazoo City, Heavenly Dishes. Collerville, Tn.: Fundcraft n.d.
St. John’s United Methodist Church, Greenwood, Ms. Let Us Break Bread Together. Hartwell, Ga.: Calico Kitchen Press, 1999. [Greenwood]
St. John’s Women’s Auxiliary, Leland and St. Paul’s Women’x Auxiliary, Hollandale, The Gourmet of the Delta. Ridgeland, Ms.: Capitol Printing and Blueprint Company, 1964. [Leland, Hollandale]
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Indianola, Ms., Bayou Cuisine: Its Traditions and Transition. Indianola, Ms., 1970.
St. Stephen’s Cookbook Committee, Best of Bayou Cuisine. Quail Ridge Press, Brandon, Ms., 1997.