The cuisine of the Mississippi Gulf Coast is primarily determined by the bountiful supply of seafood in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Children grow up gigging for flounder at low tide and using nets to snare crab in the shallow surf on warm afternoons. The search for the freshest and best treasures from the deep is a way of life for many coastal residents. Crowds gather at the docks to buy fish and shellfish straight from the boats, pack the fish in coolers, and take them home to make gumbo, jambalaya, and crab West Indies. Chefs from local restaurants purchase the makings of soft-shell crab, stuffed flounder, oyster bisque, and seafood platters.
The curve of coastline between Alabama and Louisiana has for centuries attracted those who love the sea. The Biloxi Indians first came to fish in the Sound, leaving behind shell mounds to be discovered by future generations. In 1699 the king of France sent Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, and his brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, to claim the region for France. Although the flags of Spain and England have also flown over the Gulf Coast, the French left the greatest influence on food. French sauces and cooking methods have mellowed the spiciness of Cajun and Creole dishes to develop the cuisine the coast enjoys today. Classic French dishes on restaurant menus include escargot en bordelaise, tournedos, duchesse aux champignon, and velouté of oysters en croute.
After years of rule by European powers, Mississippi became the twentieth state in the Union in 1817. As the antebellum South prospered, the coast began to become a mecca for New Orleanians seeking to escape the city’s heat and the plague of yellow fever. Before and well after the Civil War, wealthy merchants and planters built mansions near the water and spent the summers enjoying the Gulf breezes. These vacationers brought their Creole and Cajun recipes and their refined taste for gourmet dining with them. New Orleans cuisine took root and became the coast’s strongest gastronomic influence. Popular New Orleans dishes today include trout meunière, oysters Rockefeller, oysters Bienville, and crawfish étouffée. During the Civil War, when Federal forces captured Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island and imposed a blockade that prevented coast residents from reaching vital supply ships, many vowed to survive on the Gulf’s plentiful mullet, which they dubbed Biloxi Bacon.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s the Gulf Coast turned to manufacturing. The construction of canneries, lumber mills, railroads, and ice plants attracted workers from Europe and elsewhere. Today, descendants of this wave of immigrants weave the cultural fabric of the towns of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula. Nationalities include Italian, Irish, Greek, Swiss, Austrian, Slavonian, Croatian, German, and English. The cuisines of all of these countries have affected the coast in subtle ways, but their cookery is most evident at festivals. Examples include St. Patrick’s Day, the Greek Orthodox Church Festival, and St. Joseph’s Altar, a celebration featuring Sicilian food.
The coast is very much a part of the Deep South, as is especially obvious in recipes for vegetables and desserts. Vegetable dishes popular with both white and African American home cooks and chefs include squash casserole, fried green tomatoes, and eggplant fritters. Favorite desserts are bread pudding, Mississippi mud cake, banana pudding, pecan pie, and peach cobbler.
Bread choices run the gamut from farm favorites such as cornbread and hush puppies to the French bread used to make po’boy sandwiches, another New Orleans specialty that the coast has embraced. The venerable Ole Biloxi Schooner, a popular restaurant, uses French bread to make po’boys filled with oysters, shrimp, crawfish, and soft-shell crabs.
The arrival of casinos in 1992 brought gambling palaces with sleek restaurants and introduced international dishes such as Kobe beef from Japan, beluga caviar, and Dover sole. The success of these casinos has brought a measure of prosperity to restaurants on the coast. Emeril Lagasse, celebrity chef and television star, has become a frequent visitor since his marriage to Gulf Coast native Alden Lovelace.
- Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra Guild, Encore! Encore! (1999)
- Edith Ballard Watts with John Watts, Jesse’s Book of Creole and Deep South Recipes (1954)
- Mary Ann Wells, A History Lovers Guide to Mississippi (1988)
- Westminster Academy Mother’s Club, The Gulf Coast Gourmet (1979)