Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Chickasaw and Choctaw and other native tribes living in present-day Mississippi cultivated corn, pounding and soaking the grain for use in porridge-like dishes and breads. Primary among the Choctaw was tanfula, made by boiling corn kernels with wood ash lye.
Historian Daniel Usner has cataloged the centrality of corn in eighteenth-century Choctaw foodways. For an elemental bread, Choctaw stirred boiling water into dried and ground corn, added chestnut or hickory oil, fashioned a firm dough, tucked rolls made from that dough into corn shucks, and baked the rolls in hot ashes. For buhana, a mix of ground corn, beans, and hickory meats, cooks again employed shucks, but they boiled the bundles in the manner of tamales.
Beans and squash were staples as well. Native Americans foraged for hickory nuts and pecan nuts and for wild persimmons and other native fruits, which they ate out of hand. In the ashes of a dwindling fire, they roasted sweet potatoes, an indigenous crop like corn, beans, and squash. Choctaw ground the leaves of sassafras trees into a powder, now commonly known as filé, later selling it at city markets in Biloxi and other trading centers. Along the coast Native Americans fished the salt waters for pompano and shrimp; from the mudflats they harvested oysters. Deer, bear, and smaller game such as squirrels and rabbits were the primary meats. A typical meal was a hunter’s stew cooked over an open flame or a roast cooked in the embers from a fire.
Native to Europe, pigs were introduced early to present-day Mississippi. During his exploratory expedition of 1541, Spaniard Hernando de Soto traversed the state and crossed the Mississippi River with pigs, intended as on-the-hoof provisions for troops. Feral pigs were soon rooting the Mississippi soil. Early settlers adopted the animals as livestock, preferring swine to cows because of their efficiency in converting feed to flesh.
European settlers arrived with a taste for rye and wheat but soon adopted corn, which was far easier to cultivate, harvest, and transform into meal for bread. From native peoples, settlers learned to eat green corn as a vegetable; to dry it in the manner of a grain and boil it until tender; and to grind it into flour for dumplings and breads. Though numerous other foodstuffs, among them peppers, peanuts, and black-eyed peas, were introduced in ensuing years, corn and pork, the bedrock components of what would become the modern Mississippi diet, were in place at an early date.
Many of the dishes and drinks considered distinct to Mississippi—everything from souse meat to desserts such as pecan pie—owe their origins to European recipes and techniques. But the introduction of enslaved Africans thoroughly transformed the diet. African Americans reinterpreted European cookery and Native American ingredients. Some of the foodstuffs we now recognize as elemental to the southern diet owe their presence to the slave trade. Watermelons arrived by way of Africa. Okra, too, is an African plant. But African techniques practiced by cooks of African ancestry had the most cultural and culinary impact.
African American cooks have dominated Mississippi’s kitchens. Outdoor cooking, especially for barbecues and fish fries, was often the work of black men. Black women often cooked in white households and white-owned restaurants. Such relationships, historian Karen Hess has observed, had their roots “in the antebellum South when any house of pretension had skilled slaves in the kitchen. . . . The white mistress may have taken an interest in the kitchen . . . but she never actually toiled in the kitchen. The excruciating labor and the ‘stirring of the pots’ were done by black women cooks.”
Following the Civil War, modern Mississippi foodways emerged as blacks and whites and the rich and the poor adopted similar diets and similar habits of consumption. Reliance on a cotton monoculture discouraged row crop farming of vegetables. Poverty and malnutrition took their toll in the guise of pellagra, a nutritional deficiency linked to workers’ diet of meat, meal, and molasses.
In the first half of the twentieth century, as roads and rails reached more of the population, Mississippi distinguished itself as a locus for truck farming. Both black and white sharecroppers tended truck patch gardens on land that was not dedicated to cotton and other high-yield cash crops. Vardaman, in Calhoun County, emerged as a center of sweet potato production. Crystal Springs, in Copiah County, earned such a reputation for growing and shipping vegetables that the town became known as the Tomatopolis of the World.
Along the Gulf Coast and especially in the Mississippi Delta, newly arrived immigrants complicated Mississippi foodways. Although the influence of West Africans and Scots-Irish remained predominant, Croatian and Serbian immigrants made the Gulf Coast their home and soon came to dominate the seafood industry. In the Delta, Chinese immigrants initially arrived to build railroads but remained and opened groceries and restaurants in the late nineteenth century. Greeks settled across the state, most notably in Jackson, where restaurants such as the Rotisserie, the Black Cat, and the Mayflower honed a creolized Greek style that relied on fresh seafood trucked up from the Gulf and local vegetables flavored with preserved pork.
Those multiethnic influences remain, especially in the Delta. Chinese grocery stores still dot Greenville and other towns. Sicilian Creole restaurants such as Lusco’s and Giardina’s, both established in the 1930s, remain Greenwood stalwarts. Across the Delta, hot tamale vendors, a likely legacy of the early twentieth-century arrival of Mexican cotton pickers, sell what many now recognize as a traditional snack food. And the Chamoun and Abraham families of Clarksdale and other Lebanese restaurateurs serve kibbe and fried chicken, baklava and barbecue.
For much of its modern history Mississippi has struggled with poverty and with feeding its people, bestowing great symbolic importance on food and thus leading it to figure large in Mississippi music and letters. If blues music reflects African cultural mores, it also reflects African American foodways. In 1968 bluesman Little Milton, a native of Inverness, tapped the zeitgeist when he sang, “If grits ain’t groceries / Eggs ain’t poultry / And Mona Lisa was a man.” Catfish, another definitively southern foodstuff and more recently associated with Mississippi, where the great majority of pond catfish is now raised, serves as the focal point in what music scholar Scott Barretta believes may be “the most widely shared Delta blues standard of the folk repertoire.” Recorded by Mississippi artists ranging from Robert Petway to Elmore James, “Catfish Blues,” like many a blues song, mixes food imagery and sexual imagery: “Well, I wish I was a catfish, swimming in the deep, blue sea / I would have all you good looking women, fishing after me.” Muddy Waters employed the lyrics and tempo of “Catfish Blues” in “Rollin’ Stone.”
The state’s writers often made food central to their works. Richard Wright first titled his biography American Hunger, and Eudora Welty employed food imagery to great effect in her novels. As a chronicler of domestic life, she gave voice to everyday folks such as bakers and cooks. In addition to her fiction, Welty wrote at least three cookbook introductions for local nonprofit organizations, including The Country Gourmet: Recipes Compiled by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League. In an introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, Welty wrote about her hometown, but the sentiments could apply to any place at any time. She employed food to examine the importance of oral traditions handed down from one generation of women to the next: “I daresay any fine recipe used in Jackson could be attributed to a local lady, or her mother—Mrs. Cabell’s Pecans, Mrs. Wright’s Cocoons, Mrs. Lyell’s Lemon Dessert. Recipes, in the first place, had to be imparted—there was something oracular in the transaction—and however often they were made after that by others, they kept their right names. I make Mrs. Mosal’s White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend’s recipe is to celebrate her once more, and in that cheeriest, most aromatic of places to celebrate in, the home kitchen.”
The movement of Mississippians from farms to cities and suburbs spurred an increased reliance on prepackaged foods and a spike in the number and quality of restaurants. During the middle years of the twentieth century, as roads improved and discretionary income increased, humble cafés and restaurants proliferated. Some, like the slugburger and doughburger cafés of Booneville and Corinth—serving economical hamburgers made with meat extended by soy and wheat products—were local phenomena. (Weidmann’s, in Meridian, was a grand exception on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum.) But others came to define statewide genres.
Revolving-table restaurants emerged as definitive category. In 1915 the proprietors of the Mendenhall Hotel in Mendenhall installed a trio of Lazy Susan–style tables in their dining room, a solution to the effrontery of the “boardinghouse reach.” Other restaurants soon followed suit, including Walnut Hills in Vicksburg and the Dinner Bell in McComb. The bottom tier of the Lazy Susan remained stationary, while the buffet of meats and vegetables spun by on the top tier like a carousel of calories.
Country stores also emerged as a specific sort of Mississippi restaurant. Taylor Grocery, in the village of Taylor, eight miles south of Oxford, is typical of a style popular in northern Mississippi, where grocery cafés like Stareka’s in Greenville are popular and every other convenience store seems to stock a steam table with fried meats and long-simmered vegetables. The Taylor store began life in the early 1900s as a true grocery, selling cornmeal and cured meats and such. A shopper could pick up a little something to eat, such as a fried apple pie or in later years a plate of fried catfish. By the 1970s, as residents of Taylor grew accustomed to shopping in Oxford and elsewhere, the sale of dry goods declined and the sale of catfish improved. Oxford college students and others began making the trek to eat fried catfish in a onetime country store where the shelves were still stocked with jars of mayonnaise and cans of tomatoes. As Oxford gentrified, Taylor Grocery emerged as a rough-and-tumble redoubt, with a wide front porch, a screen door, and rustic interior.
African American restaurateurs long had only restricted opportunities. Capital was hard to come by, and Jim Crow laws limited the appeal of black restaurants. But they nevertheless proliferated in Mississippi. The Big Apple Inn on Farish Street in Jackson dates to the 1930s, when Juan Mora began selling hot tamales from a cart. By 1939 he had moved into a permanent location, and he soon added pig ear sandwiches to the mix. Today, his great-grandson, Gene Lee, works the griddle, selling sandwiches and tamales.
Downstate, in Foxworth, near Hattiesburg, Leatha Jackson opened Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn in 1976. Born in 1923, Jackson was one of fourteen children. She picked cotton for twenty years beginning at the age of five and did not learn how to read until she reached seventy. She worked in restaurants for nearly three decades before opening her own establishment, and despite the odds, it became a postintegration success. White and black customers alike clamored for her pork and beef cooked on monstrous cylindrical smokers set alongside the railroad tracks near the family compound. In 2000 Jackson relocated the restaurant to Hattiesburg, where she remained at the helm until she suffered a stroke in 2009. Her daughter, Bonnie Jackson, then took over until her death in September 2015.
One of the central struggles of the civil rights movement was the integration of lunch counters, diners, cafés, and restaurants. The reasons were practical. It was absurd that a black man or woman, shopping in a department store equipped with a lunch counter, could not take a break from that shopping, take a seat on a stool, and eat. Yet that was the norm until Pres. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in places of public accommodation.
White Mississippians reacted swiftly and angrily. Gov. Paul B. Johnson, for example, called the measure “vicious” and vowed to resist integration. However, the law of the land gradually won acceptance in most—but not all—of the state’s establishments. Jackson’s Belmont restaurant; Dinty Moore’s Shaw café, the Shady Nook; and others converted to “private clubs,” where admittance was available to those who paid a nominal fee—and had white skin. The Subway in the basement of Jackson’s Robert E. Lee Hotel and other restaurants closed rather than admit African Americans. As late as the early 1980s Mississippi still had between ten and twenty restaurants that refused to serve African Americans: Moore died in 1984 having never served a black man or woman.
In 1908, ten years before the rest of the United States, Mississippi banned the sale of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition also persisted in the Magnolia State long after the rest of the country abandoned the idea: beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent of less was allowed in 1945, but other alcoholic beverages effectively remained illegal until 1966. Nevertheless, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger estimated in 1950 that Mississippi had more retail liquor dealers than any of the legally wet states in the region. Founded in 1966, Greenville’s Jigger and Jug was the first legal liquor store to open in the state in more than fifty years.
Soft drinks have long mattered in Mississippi, too. Coca-Cola was first bottled in Vicksburg in 1894 by Joseph A. Biedenharn. Four years later chemist Edward C. Barq Sr. began bottling and selling soft drinks in Biloxi. Barq’s Biloxi Pop came in a variety of flavors including strawberry and peach, but root beer emerged as the most popular. As soft drinks evolved from local and regional products to national brands, Barq’s remained competitive, especially on the Gulf Coast, until 1995, when the Coca-Cola Company bought Barq’s and transformed the brand into the most popular root beer product in the nation.
In the last third of the twentieth century regional foods, including southern cuisine, gained national attention. Some Mississippi cookbooks touted “new southern cooking,” while others highlighted traditional ways and localized food traditions. Community cookbooks such as Bayou Cuisine, first published in 1970 by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church of Indianola, celebrated the Delta’s middle-class culinary traditions. Kathy Starr’s 1992 volume, The Soul of Southern Cooking, featured stories and recipes that pay homage to the African American cooks of Hollandale and other small Delta towns, including instructions for “How to Kill a Hog at Home” and recipes for gar stew and fried buffalo fish ribs.
Delta native Craig Claiborne became the food editor of the New York Times in 1957 and used the post to introduce America to a multitude of new foods and new perspectives on the dinner table. In addition to editing the food section of the Times and writing features, Claiborne reviewed restaurants and published more than twenty cookbooks, including Southern Cooking (1987), and an autobiography, A Feast Made for Laughter (1982), both of which pay tribute to the cuisine of his youth.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Mississippi became the leader in commercial catfish farming, and in the late 1980s the Catfish Institute, a Belzoni-based aquaculture industry group, started selling Americans on the mild fish that had long been a staple of Mississippi cuisine. By 1998 catfish had become the fourth-most-popular fish in the United States, though by 2014 it had dropped to eighth.
In the early 1980s Greenwood’s Fred Carl conceived the idea of manufacturing commercial-style appliances for the home market. He incorporated Viking Range in 1984 and five years later opened a facility in his hometown to build stainless-steel home ranges with the power of commercial stoves. By the early 1990s Viking ranges were recognized as an industry standard, thanks to the quality of the product and a keen public relations campaign. Carl expanded the company’s reach, developing a Viking Life division that focused on cooking schools, travel programs, and a complex of culinary-related businesses centered on the Alluvian, a boutique hotel in Greenwood.
By the 1990s the state’s major cities—most notably Oxford, Hattiesburg, and Jackson—featured restaurants that offered updated takes on traditional recipes, such as fried green tomatoes topped with crab or shrimp and grits capped with bacon and mushrooms. John Currence opened Oxford’s City Grocery in 1992. A restaurant veteran, Currence interpreted traditional southern ingredients in nontraditional ways: for example, a fried oyster appetizer was inspired by a chicken-on-a-stick dish served to late-night revelers by a local gas station.
In 1999, in part as a consequence of these developments, the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, launched an ongoing campaign to document and celebrate southern foodways by staging symposia, collecting oral histories, and making documentary films. The projects include an oral-history-driven culinary tourism effort focusing on the Mississippi Delta’s hot tamale makers.
- Craig Claiborne, A Feast Made for Laughter (1982)
- Yolanda Cruz, Hattiesburg American (23 September 2015)
- John T. Edge, Southern Foodways Alliance website (1 July 2014), www.southernfoodways.org
- John Egerton, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, and in History (1987)
- Hattiesburg American (17 September 2013); Mississippi Folklife (Winter 1997)
- National Fisheries Institute website, www.aboutseafood.com
- New York Times (1 June 1981)
- Ted Ownby, American Dreams in Mississippi (1999)
- Susan Puckett, A Cook’s Tour of Mississippi (1980)
- Katherine Rawson, “Eating Pie”: Digesting Food Production and Consumption in Faulkner (2007)
- Richard Schweid, Catfish and the Delta (1992)
- Kathy Starr, The Soul of Southern Cooking (1989)
- Joe Gray Taylor, Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South: An Informal History (1982)
- Daniel Usner, Southern Exposure (November–December 1983)