This gem was another find among the amazing avalanche of books at Fred Smith’s Choctaw Books when it was on North Street in Jackson. Published in 1981 by the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Chamber of Commerce, the book itself is hefty, a good inch-and-a-half thick, and contains almost 1000 recipes. Most of these recipes are typical of the time: dozens of casseroles, oodles of pies and cakes, and of the sixty-odd salad recipes only two involve no gelatin whatsoever.
The introduction was written by Stanley Dearman, who for 34 years (beginning in 1966) was the editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia. Dearman’s editorials expressing outrage at the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers helped set the stage for the belated conviction of a former Klansman for organizing the killings, The case that became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, and was the basis for the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning.”
Along with the introduction, I’ve included Turner Catledge’s cheese grits, Fannie Smith’s blackberry trifle, and another blackberry recipe, “Blackberry Acid,” a truly antique refreshment.
In this particular region of the South–the east central hill country of Mississippi—the tradition of food and fellowship go back many generations. More specifically, eating and talking are two things that natives in this region value highly and take seriously.
Nowhere do these two activities blend more happily than at the Neshoba County Fair-which in fact started in 1889 with a picnic under the trees and around the wagons by community residents who wanted to get together and talk-while they ate, of course, and to display their agricultural achievements. For many years the Fair has been known as “Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty-hence the name of this cookbook.
During one week of the year, usually the first in August, the Fairground is transformed into a bustling city with a festive air. More than 500 cabins circling the racetrack, as well as hundreds of campers and mobile homes from across the South, are temporary homes for thousands who migrate back because of family connections or friendships. There are no strangers here; hospitality abounds and food and drink are shared by all.
The fame of the Fair has spread over the years. Last year it was featured in National Geographic and Southern Living magazines. And during the presidential campaign, Ronald and Nancy Reagan paid a visit and drew a record crowd. State politics and its florid oratory have been a part of the Fair since before the turn of the century.
Fair Week is preceded by several weeks of brisk activity and planning by the womenfolk-casseroles are made and frozen; hams and turkeys are baked or smoked; menus are planned and the shelves are stocked. In this region of abundant agricultural crops, corn, tomatoes, peas, butterbeans, squash and okra are harvested and processed, fitting complements to the succulent fried chicken and magnificent repertoire of dazzling desserts. A section of special Fair recipes is included in this book.
The production of the Giant Houseparty cookbook was the result of a project begun by the Philadelphia Rotary Club. For many years the Rotary Club distributed mimeographed recipe booklets at its annual pancake suppers. These booklets became collector’s items over the years.
The Rotary Club first considered producing a cookbook, but later granted permission to the Chamber of Commerce to assume the project. The committee selected and edited recipes from the existing collection prior to collecting others. A special effort was made to gather recipes which not only had become part of the local culinary lore, but to achieve a balance of “useful” recipes.
Another special effort was made to gather recipes from former residents in various parts of the country. For example, Turner Catledge, retired editor of the New York Times, was kind enough to send us his recipe for cheese grits. Mr. Catledge grew up in Neshoba County and now lives in New Orleans. He and Mrs. Catledge gave a dinner party in their home for Van Cliburn, whose father, the late Harvey Lavan Cliburn, was born and reared in Neshoba County, Catledge and Cliburn had much to talk about at that dinner party, which included that grits casserole.
Also, closer to home, we are delighted to include a recipe for Blackberry Trifle from Mrs. Fannie Johnson Smith, who at the age of 102 vividly recalls the day in 1889 when, at the age of 10, she accompanied her parents across a hill or two to the first Neshoba County Fair.
Catledge Cheese Grits
1 cup grits
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups grated cheese
Dash of red pepper’1/2 stick butter
Combine grits, salt, and water and bring to a boil, stirring well. Place over bottom of a double boiler and cook for 40 minutes. While this is cooking, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add cheese, eggs, butter and pepper. Place in a Pyrex dish and heat in oven about 30 minutes.
1 cup blackberry trifle
1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup butter
2 tablespoons flour
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 9-in. unbaked pie shell
4 tablespoons sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix well jam, sugar, buttermilk, butter, flour, egg yolks, and vanilla. Pour into pie shell. Bake about 40 minutes. Beat egg whites until stiff, gradually adding 4 tablespoons of sugar. Spread meringue on top of pie and return to oven to brown lightly.
3 gallons blackberries
½ gallon boiling water
4 ounces tartaric acid
1 ½ cups sugar to 1 cup juices
Crush berries, add boiling water, and let stand 24 hours. Strain, add tartaric acid and sugar. Let stand at least 24 hours before bottling.