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Delta delicious: Tour the 'Soul of the South' when Table Talk hosts author of 'Eat Drink Delta'



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Author Susan Puckett

Author Susan Puckett


Mississippi native Susan Puckett of Atlanta, right, is pictured at a recent book signing at Turnrow Books in Greenwood. Cathy Mai, to her left, is one of the featured cooks in “Eat Drink Delta.” With her husband, Mai runs Mai Little China in Greenwood, an example of a business that grew out of the Delta’s significant Chinese community.

Mississippi native Susan Puckett of Atlanta, right, is pictured at a recent book signing at Turnrow Books in Greenwood. Cathy Mai, to her left, is one of the featured cooks in “Eat Drink Delta.” With her husband, Mai runs Mai Little China in Greenwood, an example of a business that grew out of the Delta’s significant Chinese community.
Photo by: Courtesy photo



Jan Swoope



For more than three years, on and off, veteran food journalist and Jackson native Susan Puckett delved into the Delta, its history, its communities and, most of all, its food. Saveur magazine's March issue describes the result as "a book that, if used properly, will wind up tattered and dog-eared in your glove compartment, its pages stained with grease from the fried okra you ordered at the Blue Levee restaurant in Rosedale, and a watermark from the Rhett Butler cocktail you savored at Vicksburg's Cedar Grove Mansion Inn." 


Indeed, Puckett's "Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler's Journey Through the Soul of the South" is more than a cookbook. It's a food-lover's delight, a travelogue to family-run roadhouses, seasonal tea rooms and little known juke joints.  


On Wednesday, June 12, Puckett will share stories of her culinary adventure during Table Talk, presented jointly by the Friends of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library and Hitching Lot Farmers' Market. The noon-1 p.m. program at the library at 314 Seventh St N. is free to everyone. Bring lunch at 11:30 a.m. and socialize. Iced tea will be provided. 


Start with Mississippi 


"I really believe with all my heart that anyone -- whether a food writer or foodie -- who claims to sincerely be interested in regional American food needs to go to Mississippi first, and in particular the Delta. It's where so many of these indigenous, authentic flavors started," said Puckett Monday by phone from her home in the Atlanta area. 


This interest in food took root while Puckett was at her first job, with the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. At her editor's urging and armed with a journalism degree from Ole Miss, the writer spent months traveling the state for food stories that were made into a small cookbook in 1980 called "A Cook's Tour of Mississippi." Willie Morris wrote the introduction.  


"It was a major turning point in my life to do that book," shared Puckett. "For some reason I can't explain I've always gravitated toward stories about cooks and food, especially as they pertain to my own Southern heritage. Once the book was finished, I just knew this was my calling." 


Her passion stayed with her through 18 years as food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through penning more cookbooks and writing for national food and culture magazines. And when the idea for a geographically-focused cookbook came up, it led her to the Delta.  




Why there? 


"The Delta came to mind because it's so clearly defined, yet so mysterious," the author said. The region had certainly been explored through music and literature and Puckett was eager to do the same through food. 


When she stumbled across the adage "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg," she knew she had her end points. In between them, Puckett discovered the kaleidoscope of tastes and influences that make the region unique. 


"The river is very clearly the lifeblood of the river towns in the Delta; there's something about it that keeps pulling people back," Puckett observed. Proximity to the river meant so many influences floating in and out of port, inspiring somewhat adventurous palates.  


"There's also a history of have and have-nots, of a lot of wealth in the beginning; these early settlers were educated, well-traveled people and that was passed down through generations," said Puckett. 


The absence of super highways in the Delta has an impact, too.  


"They go around but not through, and consequently you don't have a zillion fast food restaurants; there's not a sea of generic restaurants and gas stations," the writer noted. 


One lasting observation Puckett brought away with her was the strong sense of community she found, how people connected with each other as Deltans. 




The next generation 


"Eat Drink Delta" was released just before Christmas and immediately began garnering favorable reviews. Puckett took a break from book signings to return to her alma mater in January to co-teach a depth reporting journalism class at the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media. 


She and former Miami Herald managing editor Bill Rose took a group of students into the Mississippi Delta to report on attempts to use local foodways to boost the local economy and slow the steady exodus from one of America's most depressed regions. 


"It was so thrilling to take these really smart students and see them dig into these stories in the Delta," she said. "The older I get the more I believe that these stories need to be kept alive, not just because they entertain us or for nostalgic value. They really are kind of the glue that keeps these communities together; they really connect us to where we come from."  


A portion of the proceeds from the cookbook benefits a scholarship fund at the Meek School of Journalism, designed to inspire future generations to continue telling stories of the South through the prism of food.  


Through visits like the one to Columbus June 12, Puckett carries the message forward, stressing that every community has food stories and local traditions that are being kept alive. Finding them is a mission worth pursuing. 


Editor's note: Copies of Susan Puckett's "Eat Drink Delta" will be available for purchase and signing at Table Talk June 12. The book sells for $24.95 and is also widely available at bookstores and online. 






Makes 6-8 servings 




1 1/2 cups sugar 


3 1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder 


1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, melted 


2/3 cup evaporated milk 


2 large eggs, beaten 


1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract 


1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell 


Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional) 


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the sugar and cocoa. Stir in the melted butter, evaporated milk, eggs, and vanilla. Pour into unbaked pie shell and bake until the filling is nearly set with a slightly jiggly center, about 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. This is great with whipped cream or ice cream. 


    (This Delta favorite in "Eat Drink Delta" has a brownie-like filling and comes topped with whipped cream, ice cream or meringue.) 






    Makes 4 cups 




    1 pound medium or sharp cheddar cheese 


    1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature 


    1 cup mayonnaise, plus more as needed 


    2 tablespoons sliced pickled jalapeño chiles 


    1 (4-ounce) jar sliced pimentos, drained 


    2 teaspoons dried dill 


    1/2 teaspoon garlic salt 


    1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper 




  • With a box grater or food processor fitted with a grater attachment, grate the cheddar cheese. 


  • In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the cream cheese, mayonnaise, jalapeños, pimentos, dill, salt, and white pepper; pulse to blend. Add the grated cheese and pulse until the mixture is mostly smooth with a few visible bits of jalapeño and pimento. If too thick, add a little more mayonnaise. 


  • Transfer into a storage container and refrigerate at least 4 hours and preferably overnight. Serve slightly chilled or at room temperature. 


    (From "Eat Drink Delta") 






    Makes 6-8 servings 




    4 medium yellow summer squash, chopped (about 6 cups) 


    2 medium onions, chopped 


    1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, melted 


    1 tablespoon all-purpose flour 


    1/2 teaspoon sugar 


    1/2 teaspoon salt 


    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 


    3 large eggs, separated 


    4 ounces grated full-flavored cheese, such as sharp cheddar, Parmesan, or Gruyère (1 cup) 




  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2- to 2 1/2- quart soufflé dish. 


  • In a large saucepan, cook the squash and onions in boiling salted water until very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the squash and onion mixture well in a colander, pressing out as much liquid as you can. Transfer into a large bowl and mash with a potato masher. Stir in the melted butter, flour, sugar, salt, and pepper. Blend in the egg yolks and the grated cheese. In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the squash mixture. 


  • Scrape into the prepared soufflé dish and bake until puffed and nicely browned, 40 to 45 minutes. Serve immediately. 


    (Mrs. Innes McIntyre's squash soufflé in "Eat Drink Delta" is from "Itta Bena's Favorite Recipes," published in 1950 by the Woman's Club of Itta Bena.)


  • Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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