I wrote my first cookbook when I was a rookie reporter at my hometown newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. I was just learning how to cook then, and knew nothing about writing a recipe, but I did show an aptitude for spotting food-related stories about my Mississippi heritage that were worthy of preserving. My editors recognized this and gave me the chance of a lifetime when they instructed me to spend the next five months traveling around the state collecting as many of these stories as I could find, and recipes to illustrate them. A Cook’s
Tour of Mississippi, published by the Hederman Brothers in 1980, is the result.
You may notice that Willie Morris’ name is on the cover — not mine. The Mississippi native who went on to become editor of Harper’s Magazine and write numerous non-fiction and fiction books was already considered a legend in Southern literature, and it was quite a coup when he agreed to write the introduction. Several pages into it, in tiny letters, you can spot my name (along with Angela Meyers Hederman, the designer and editor who masterminded it) if you squint. Being young and green, it took me years to get past my rather fragile ego and appreciate the brilliant marketing move this was. Not only was it good for book sales, it was also great for my career. The book sold in the tens of thousands of copies the first year, and got national press. I got quoted in USA Today, as an “authority” on Southern cuisine. It spurred me on to go back to school to learn about food and nutrition and how to test and write recipes like a pro.
In recent years, I have spotted A Cook’s Tour of Mississippi in library archive collections and I have seen it acknowledged in bibliographies of books by some of the country’s best known food writers. When I visit people’s homes in Mississippi, I sometimes see it on kitchen bookshelves. I love being able to tell people that I had a big hand in bringing this collection to life.
Bobbie’s Good Dish
One of my favorite memories of researching this book was visiting a couple of farmers who operated a grist mill in the rural village of Leesburg. The contraption sat in an old shed, and they reckoned it had been around for close to a century. “I dipped meal for my daddy when I was just a little boy,” Troy Harrell told me. “Back then, we’d have so much business, we’d have to put numbers on everybody’s sack to keep track of ’em all.” Business was pretty much nonexistent the day I visited, as I recall, and we had plenty of time to chew the fat. In preparation of my visit, Plez Walker’s wife, Allene, asked the women at her prayer club meeting to write down their favorite cornmeal recipes on note cards. Her husband presented me with a stack of them, and this was one of them.
1 1/2 pounds ground meat
1 large onion, diced
1 large bell pepper, diced
1 (12-ounce) can Mexicorn (undrained)
1 (16-ounce) can lima beans (undrained)
1 (12-ounce) can tomato paste
2 or 3 tablespoons chili powder
Corn Bread Mix (see below)
Brown meat, onion, pepper; add corn, beans, tomato paste and chili powder. Let simmer while mixing corn bread as directed below.
Corn Bread Mix
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 to 1/2 cup water
Mix ingredients, adding water if needed. Pour this mixture on top of meat mixture, which has been put in casserole dish. Bake at 350 degrees F. until corn bread comes to the top and browns.