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.”