Welty on Mississippi Food

This text is from a pamphlet that Eudora Welty wrote for and was distributed by the Mississippi Advertising Commission in 1936. Bearing that in mind, the simplicity of the recipes and the appeal to “Old South” sensibilities are better understood. This essay was selected by the Federal Writers’ Project only a short time before the publication of A Curtain of Green in 1941, a work that established Welty as a leading light in American letters, a position she still holds.

Stark Young, in his book Feliciana, tells how a proud and lovely Southern lady, famous for her dinner table and for her closely guarded recipes, temporarily forgot how a certain dish was prepared. She asked her Creole cook, whom she herself had taught, for the recipe. The cook wouldn’t give it back. Still highly revered, recipes in the South are no longer quite so literally guarded. Generosity has touched the art of cooking, and now and then, it is said, a Southern lady will give another Southern lady her favorite recipe and even include all the ingredients, down to that magical little touch that makes all the difference. In the following recipes, gleaned from ante-bellum homes in various parts of Mississippi, nothing is held back. That is guaranteed. Yankees are welcome to make these dishes. Follow the directions and success is assured.

Port Gibson, Mississippi, which General Grant on one occasion declared was “too beautiful to burn,” is the source of a group of noble old recipes. “Too beautiful to burn” by far are the jellied apples which Mrs. Herschel D. Brownlee makes and the recipe for which she parts with as follows:

JELLIED APPLES

Pare and core one dozen apples of a variety which will jell successfully. Winesap and Jonathan are both good. To each dozen apples moisten well two and one-half cups of sugar. Allow this to boil for about five minutes. Then immerse apples in this syrup, allowing plenty of room about each apple. Add the juice of one-half lemon, cover closely, and allow to cook slowly until apples appear somewhat clear. Close watching and frequent turning is necessary to prevent them from falling apart. Remove from stove and fill centers with a mixture of chopped raisins, pecans, and crystallized ginger, the latter adding very much to the flavor of the finished dish. Sprinkle each apple with granulated sugar and baste several times with the thickening syrup, then place in a 350-degree oven to glaze without cover on vessel. Baste several times during this last process.

Mrs. Brownlee stuffs eggs with spinach and serves with a special sauce, the effect of which is amazingly good. Here is the secret revealed:

STUFFED EGGS

12 eggs
1 lb. can of spinach or equal amount of fresh spinach
1 small onion, cut fine
salt and pepper to taste
juice of 1 lemon or ½ cup vinegar
½ cup melted butter or oil
1 large can mushroom soup.

Boil eggs hard, peel, and cut lengthwise. Mash yolks fine. Add butter, seasoning, and spinach. Stuff each half egg, press together, and pour over them mushroom soup thickened with cornstarch, and chopped pimento for color.

Last of all, Mrs. Brownlee gives us this old recipe for lye hominy, which will awaken many a fond memory in the hearts of expatriate Southerners living far, far away.

LYE HOMINY

1 gallon shelled corn
12 quart oak ashes salt to taste
Boil corn about three hours, or until the husk comes off, with oak ashes which must be tied in a bag—a small sugar sack will answer. Then wash in three waters. Cook a second time about four hours, or until tender. -An all day job: adds Mrs. Brownlee.

One of the things Southerners do on plantations is give big barbecues. For miles around, “Alinda Gables,” a plantation in the Delta near Greenwood, is right well spoken of for its barbecued chicken and spare ribs. Mr. and Mrs. Allen Hobbs, of “Alinda Gables,” here tells you what to do with every three-pound chicken you mean to barbecue:

BARBECUE SAUCE

1 pint Wesson oil
2 pounds butter
5 bottles barbecue sauce (12 ounce bottles)
1/2 pint vinegar
1 cup lemon juice
2 bottles tomato catsup (14 ounce bottles)
1 bottle Worcestershire sauce (10 ounce bottles)
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
2 buttons garlic, chopped fine salt and pepper to taste
This will barbecue eight chickens weighing from 242 to 3 pounds. In barbecuing, says Mrs. Hobbs, keep a slow fire and have live coals to add during the process of cooking, which takes about two hours. The secret lies in the slow cooking and the constant mopping of the meat with the sauce. Keep the chickens wet at all times and turn often. If hotter sauce is desired, add red pepper and more Tabasco sauce.

Mrs. James Milton Acker, whose home, “The Magnolias,” in north Mississippi is equally famous for barbecue parties under the magnificent magnolia trees on the lawn, gives a recipe which is simpler and equally delightful: • Heat together: 4 ounces vinegar, 14 ounces catsup, 3 ounces Worcestershire sauce, the juice of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons salt, red and black pepper to taste, and 4 ounces butter. Baste the meat constantly while cooking.

Pass Christian, Mississippi, an ancient resort where the most brilliant society of the eighteenth century used to gather during the season, is awakened each morning by the familiar cry, “Oyster ma-an from Pass Christi-a-an!” It would take everything the oyster man had to prepare this seafood gumbo as the chef at Inn-by-the-Sea, Pass Christian, orders it:

SEAFOOD GUMBO

2 quarts okra, sliced
large green peppers
1 large stalk celery
6 medium sized onions
1 bunch parsley
½ quart diced ham
2 cans #2 tomatoes
2 cans tomato paste
3 pounds cleaned shrimp
2 dozen hard crabs, cleaned and broken into bits
100 oysters and juice
½ cup bacon drippings
1 cup flour small bundle of bay leaf and thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon Lea & Perrins Sauce
1 gallon chicken or ham stock
Put ham in pot and smother until done. Then add sliced okra, and also celery, peppers, onions, and parsley all ground together. Cover and cook until well done. Then add tomatoes and tomato paste. Next put in the shrimp, crabs, crab meat and oysters. Make brown roux of bacon dripping and flour and add to the above. Add the soup stock, and throw into pot bay leaves and thyme, salt and pepper, and Lea & Perrins Sauce. This makes three gallons of gumbo. Add one tablespoon of steamed rice to each serving.

The chef at Inn-by-the-Sea fries his chickens deliciously too. He uses pound or pound-and-a-half size fowls. Dressed and drawn, they are cut into halves and dipped into batter made of one egg slightly beaten to which one cup of sweet milk has been added, as well as salt and pepper. The halves of chicken are dipped and thoroughly wetted in the batter and then dredged well in dry, plain flour. The chef fries the chicken in deep hot fat until they are well done and a golden brown. He says be careful not to fry too fast.

Two other seafood recipes from the Mississippi Coast come out of Biloxi, that cosmopolitan city that began back in 1669, and where even today the European custom of blessing the fleet at the opening of the shrimp season is ceremoniously observed. “Fish court bouillon” is a magical name on the Coast, it is spoken in soft voice by the diner, the waiter, and the chef alike; its recipe should be accorded the highest respect; it should be made up to the letter, and without delay:

FISH COURT BOUILLON

5 or 6 onions
1 bunch parsley
2 or 4 pieces celery
4 pieces garlic
6 small cans tomatoes
1 or 2 bay leaves hot peppers to taste
Cut up fine, fry brown, and let simmer for about an hour, slowly. Prepare the fish, and put into the gravy. Do not stir. Cook until fish is done. This will serve 8 to 10 people; for 10 or more double the ingredients. To prepare fish, fry without cornmeal, and put in a plate or pan. Pour a portion of the gravy over it, and let it set for a while. Just before serving, pour the rest of the hot gravy over the fish.

Another valuable Coast recipe which comes from Biloxi is that for Okra Gumbo.

OKRA GUMBO

2 or 3 onions
½ bunch parsley
5 or 6 pieces celery
1 small piece garlic
4 cans of okra, or a dozen fresh pieces
1 can tomatoes
1 pound veal stew, or 1 slice raw ham
Cut all ingredients in small pieces and fry brown. Let simmer for a while. If shrimp are desired, pick and par-boil them and add to the ingredients the shrimp and the water in which they were boiled. If oysters or crab meat is desired, add to gumbo about twenty minutes before done. Add as much water as desired.

Aberdeen, Mississippi, is a good Southern town to find recipes. Old plantations along the Tombigbee River centered their social life in Aberdeen as far back as the 1840’s, and some of the recipes that were used in those days are still being made up in this part of the country.

Mrs. C. L. Lubb, of Aberdeen, uses this recipe for beaten biscuit:

BEATEN BISCUIT

4 cups flour, measured before sifting 3/4 cup lard 1 teaspoon salt 4 teaspoons sugar enough ice water and milk to make a stiff dough (about Y2 cup). Break 150 times until the dough pops. Roll out and cut, and prick with a fork. Bake in a 400-degree oven. When biscuits are a light brown, turn off the heat and leave them in the oven with the door open until they sink well, to make them done in the middle.

Mrs. Bicknell T. Eubanks, also of Aberdeen, prepares Spanish rice this way.

SPANISH RICE

4 tablespoons oil
1 cup rice
1 onion, sliced
1 green pepper, chopped
1 quart canned tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt, a little less than ½ teaspoon pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large frying pan and add rice. Cook until brown, stirring constantly. Cook remaining 2 tablespoons oil with onion and green pepper until the onion is yellow and tender. Combine with rice. Add tomatoes and let it simmer until the rice is tender, stirring constantly. Add a little hot tomato juice if the rice seems dry. Add seasonings. Serves 6.

Vicksburg, in the old steamboat days Mississippi’s wicked, wide-open town, lived high with all the trimmings. Perched on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, it is famous still for its excellent catfish. The disarmingly simple recipe for preparing it is here given: Take a catfish weighing 12 pound. Season well with salt and pepper, and roll in cornmeal. Use a pot of deep fat with temperature of 360 degrees. Place the fish in the pot and fry until done. Serve very hot.

To go along with the fish, the Hotel Vicksburg serves a wickedly hot potato salad, prepared as follows:

1 quart sliced potatoes (cooked)
6 pieces chopped crisp bacon
3 chopped hard boiled eggs
1 minced large green pepper
2 minced pimentos
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
salt and pepper to taste
Mix and serve with quartered tomatoes, sliced dill pickles, mixed sweet pickles, and quartered onions.

A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magic ingredient, the mint julep. In the fine old city of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in “Whitehall,” the home of Mr. and Mrs. T. C. Billups. “The drink is refreshing,” says Mrs. Billups, needlessly enough, “and carries with it all the charm of the Old South when life was less strenuous than it is today; when brave men and beautiful women loved and laughed and danced the hours away, but in their serious moments, which were many, aspired to develop minds and souls that made them among the finest people this old world has known.” The “Whitehall” recipe is as follows:

MINT JULEP

Have silver goblet thoroughly chilled. Take half lump sugar and dissolve in tablespoon water. Take single leaf mint and bruise it between fingers, dropping it into dissolved sugar. Strain after stirring. Fill the goblet with crushed ice, to capacity. Pour in all the bourbon whiskey the goblet will hold. Put a sprig of mint in the top of the goblet, for bouquet. Let goblet stand until FROSTED. Serve rapidly.

Who could ask for anything more?

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