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.
Mississippi chefs were local before local was cool. John Currence on the Square in Oxford, Nick Apostle in the capital city of Jackson, and Jeremy Noffke in my hometown of Hattiesburg have all been sourcing local vegetables and proteins from day one.
Barbeque gets sweeter and saucier the father one travels the length of the state. In Southaven, dry Memphis barbeque is the norm. In the Piney Woods region of Mississippi (an area 60 miles due north of the Gulf of Mexico) the ribs can be served dry or wet, but the sauce is sweeter. It may get saucier the farther south one travels, but it will always be pork. We leave beef barbeque to those states west of the river.
Crystal Springs in central Mississippi just reclaimed the title of “Tomato Capital of the World” from some town in Texas that had stolen the moniker for a few years. Now that the distinction is back where it belongs, lets take a minute to appreciate what tomatoes mean to our diets. On behalf of Crystal Springs, we say, “You’re welcome, world.”
Vardaman, Mississippi in the northeast hill country is the undisputed “Sweet Potato Capital.” Their healthy, orange tuberous roots are so prolific that they’ve never had a Texas city try to steal their claim to fame.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is the crown jewel of Mississippi cuisine. I will always choose a salty Gulf of Mexico oyster over any variety of oyster from the Pacific Northwest or East Coast. You want fish? We’ve got redfish, grouper, speckled trout, flounder, cobia, pompano, red snapper, yellowfin tuna, and a few hundred other species swimming at our backdoor.
Marylanders tend to cop a superior attitude when talking about crabs, but in reality— from October through March— a large portion of what they are eating in and around Baltimore is crab shipped from Mississippi waters.
Where southwestern Mississippi borders Louisiana Cajun and Creole flavors seep into the cuisine. The food down here just tastes better than other parts of the country.
We might not have the cultural diversity of some of America’s larger cities— most with four times the population of our state— but no one should ever make the mistake of selling us short. Mississippi is a culinary melting pot. Greek immigrants are the forefathers of the restaurants in the capital city of Jackson. Italians fed the Delta in the 20th century. Authentic Vietnamese cuisine is plentiful in cafes along the Gulf Coast where Croatian fishermen have long made the Gulf waters their workplace, true Mexican fare is abundant across the 382 miles of dirt and pine trees located between Memphis Mobile, and Japanese cuisine— using fresh seafood from Mississippi Gulf waters— is thriving in small towns that used to house only meat-and-three diners.
We do love our catfish and grits, but there is so much more to Mississippi and it is here for the tasting.
RSJ’s 21st Century Turnip Greens
1/2 cup bacon, medium dice
1/4 cup shallots, small dice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbl brown sugar
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
2-3 bunches turnip greens, cleaned, dried and cut into 2” wide strips (about 10 cups cut up)
1 1/2 cups pork stock
1/2 tsp kosher salt
In a large sauce pot, brown the bacon over medium heat. Stir in the shallots and cook for 2 minutes. Add the vinegar, brown sugar and crushed red pepper, cook until the sugar has dissolved completely. Add in the turnip greens and mix them well with the bacon mixture. Add the hot pork stock, and cover for 5 minutes. Remove the cover and stir the greens. Continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring often to prevent the greens from burning. Add the salt.
Hold warm until ready to serve.
Yield: 6-8 servings
8 Ham hocks
1 1 /2 gal Water
1 /2 Onion
Place hocks, water and onion in a large stockpot and simmer over low heat eight hours. Add more water as needed to yield one gallon of final product. Strain and place stock in refrigerator overnight. Using a large spoon, remove fat layer from top of chilled stock. Stock should be slightly gelatinous. Stock can be frozen in small batches. Yield: one gallon
Note: Reserve ham hock meat for other recipes