MERIDIAN — A few weeks ago a national publication asked me to write a 500-word piece describing “Mississippi food.” It was hard. For someone like me, who loves my home state and the cuisine of my state, it was almost impossible. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a small allocation of verbiage. I edited myself down to 642 words, but I still didn’t cover everything I needed to say about the food of our state. Today I’ve added to those 642 words. Allow me to preach to the choir for a moment:
Quick, name two Mississippi foods.
Grits and catfish, right?
It’s true, stone-ground grits and farm-raised catfish are two staples of the Mississippi larder. But Mississippi cuisine is so much more. An attempt to nail down this state’s bounty to two stereotypical Southern items would do an extreme disservice to Mississippi’s true culinary diversity. The cuisine and the culture of twenty-first-century Mississippi have depth and breadth that go far beyond what many have assumed for way too long.
For example, in the Mississippi Delta there is a longstanding tradition of tamales— served in fine dining restaurants as an appetizer before a meal and also in the fields as a day laborer’s lunch. Drive south on US Highway 61— parallel to the river that gave the state it’s name— from Tunica to Vicksburg, basically the length of the Mississippi Delta, and you’ll pass a few dozen roadside joints that serve tamales that would make an Oaxacan street vendor blush. Each one of the small roads and highways that amble off of Highway 61 like branches of the big river each leads to another location where someone is heating a tin paint can full of tamales on a small stovetop.
I have long held that agrarian societies produce the world’s best food— not only the food they transport and sell to others, but the foods the locals eat. The dark, rich soil of Mississippi is ground zero for vegetable farming. The vegetables themselves are a treat, but it’s the ancillary foods surrounding them— pigs, chickens, and wild game— that grab the headlines. The French and Italians eat every part of the pig. We do, too.