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.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
June 5, 2013 10:26:34 AM
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.
"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.
YAZOO MARKET CHOCOLATE CHESS PIE
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)
(This Delta favorite in "Eat Drink Delta" has a brownie-like filling and comes topped with whipped cream, ice cream or meringue.)
ANCHUCA INN JALAPENO-PIMENTO CHEESE SPREAD
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
(From "Eat Drink Delta")
MRS. INNES McINTYRE'S SQUASH SOUFFLE
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)
(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.