Read an Excerpt
Some people might say I got what I deserve, ending up right back where I started, here in Mississippi’s delta. Growing up in and around Yazoo City, Mississippi, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about how to get out of here. Oh, we had fun, mind you. But there was the whole wide world out there, and not much of it seemed to pass down Highway 49. Food always offered a ticket to adventure for me all my life. Some of those first experiences were visits to New Orleans, a city that still fascinates me with its unique flavors and mysterious tales. I remember sneaking into Tipitina’s kitchen back door with my uncle to hear the Neville Brothers. I ate my way through the food tents with alligator po’ boys and other exotic fare at Jazz Fest each spring break and had my first dress-up white-linen-tableclothed dinner at Antoine’s. Other revelations about the world came by way of the occasional appearance of recipes brought back home as souvenirs by traveling relatives. Friends with family ties to faraway homelands informed and intrigued me with exotic spices.
Books offered alternative adventures to me as I grew up amid the kudzu. Mrs. Wilburn would read aloud to our fourth-grade class each morning from Willie Morris’s books. We hung on every word, sending up a sorrowful “awww” when she would leave us hanging until the next day. For the first time I realized that a book could be about where you were from. Until then they had been about fairy-tale kingdoms or tales of old or distant places covered by National Geographic. Later the lovely Bea Donnelly, Dean of Girls at my high school, introduced me to Faulkner’s story “The Bear,” and my love of books about the South became firmly rooted.
I went to work right out of high school in Oxford, Mississippi, upstairs in the café at Square Books, which sparked a love of cookbooks. Legendary local cookbooks Bayou Cuisine and Gourmet of the Delta never left my kitchen and were referenced until dog-eared. As I grew up a bit more, food service offered employment to a girl looking for her first taste of independence. Jobs from Austin to Aspen, Burlington to Los Angeles, and New Orleans to Minneapolis allowed me to take the ride on the ticket.
When I went off to cooking school in France, I quickly found out that to some people, being from the Mississippi Delta was exotic—as different as my fellow students’ provenances were to me. It slowly came to light that when most of these folks thought of America, they thought of the South. To many of my new acquaintances it appeared that American music meant rhythm ‘n’ blues and jazz; tales of America were learned from Miss Eudora Welty; and when it came to food, fried chicken was for dinner. This sentiment seemed to echo throughout all my travels—anywhere from Africa to South America—and was even expressed by my tuk-tuk driver in Thailand.
I moved back home to the Delta about five years ago to our family’s place, Pluto Plantation, and into the home I inherited from my grandmother. Homesickness brought me back. But what has kept me here is a love and appreciation for the land and its people. The hardscrabble life of hill-country Mississippi rolls down to the genteel seas of loam in the Delta and spreads out to a straight-lined horizon. Bordered by bayous, this place, described by Richard Ford as “the South’s south,” is in a constant state of change. The maneuverings of rivers change its borders, and migrations of people change its population. Still, folks hold on, conceivably out of hard-headedness, or perhaps because there is a unique bond here between the people of the Mississippi Delta and the alluvian plain on which they live.
All in all, this book is about my home, and I know no better way to tell its stories than through food. Recipes for collard greens and black-eyed peas capture our superstitions, but trust passes them along. Recipes like crisp, golden-rimmed tea cakes scented with nutmeg conjure dimly lit homes of elderly relations. The smell of a skillet bread browning on the stovetop transports me back in time to when this land was cleared at the end of the century before last. The slow simmering of my gumbos mimics the pace of our speech down here. The unadorned perfection of home-grown tomatoes paired with delicate lady peas is just one way for me to explain this place—and I guess myself, too.
I hope this album of recipes and memories imbues you with a sense of this extraordinary place as it lays bare the deep, rich textures, colors, rhythms, and flavors of my home. My wish is that you feel inspired to re-create them in your own home for a little taste of what life is like down South.
Thinking of Mrs. Leah
Preparing this gumbo makes me think of Leah Chase, proprietress of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, on the corner of Claiborne and Orleans Avenues in New Orleans. Not much more than five feet tall, if even that, with a magisterial voice, Mrs. Leah Chase has commanded the cherished establishment for decades, receiving countless awards for her cooking and community commitment. In my eyes, she is the undisputed “Queen of Creole Cuisine.”
This thick, verdant filé gumbo, like the one at Dooky Chase, is often served on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and throughout Lent, when it is prepared without meat, as it is here. The number of greens included in a batch may vary from cook to cook. Some use seven, as it is the “number of completion” throughout the Bible. Others choose seven types of greens to represent the seven African powers. Some use twelve, representing the number of apostles, while others choose as many as possible with the belief that with every green you add to your gumbo pot, you will make a new friend. Leah has added untold numbers of greens to her well-seasoned gumbo pot and has the friends to prove it. Remember, as the Grande Dame says, if more friends drop on in for gumbo than anticipated, you have to baptize the gumbo by stretching it out with a little water.
SERVES 8 TO 10
Approximately 12 cups roughly chopped greens (no stems, please) of at least 5 of the following: spinach; collard; turnip, beet, or carrot tops; mustard; chicory; kale; watercress; pepper grass; poke sallet; cabbage; sorrel; or leaf lettuce
1 large onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
6 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
1 cup chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon filé powder, plus extra for seasoning
4 to 5 cups cooked white rice
1. In a 2-gallon stockpot, simmer the greens, onion, and garlic with 1 gallon water for 2 hours, or until all types of greens are tender. Strain the greens, reserving the liquid, or fish out most of the greens with a sieve and set aside.
2. In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Whisk the flour in slowly until no lumps remain. Continue to cook and stir for 2 minutes, or until about the color of a paper grocery sack.
3. Add the green onions, parsley, bay leaves, thyme, salt, cayenne, sugar, and allspice. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the greens and the vinegar, and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Add the reserved cooking liquid and cook for 1 hour over low heat. Remove from the heat, adjust the seasoning, and add the filé powder. Stir well. Remove the bay leaves.
4. Serve in bowls over a little rice with a sprinkling of filé powder over each.
• Filé is ground sassafras leaves. Introduced into Creole cooking by the Choctaws who lived around Lake Pontchartrain, filé has become a signature ingredient of the region. It derives its name from its improper use; when the powdered leaves are added to a boiling liquid, its mucilaginous qualities come out, forming threads, or fils in French. Never add filé until the end, when there is no chance of the liquid returning to a boil—filé will gently thicken the gumbo as it sits.
• The taste of filé powder is a little like mild marjoram. The sassafras powders available in some herb emporiums are made of the roots and bark and should not be confused with filé powder, which is made from the ground leaves.
• If you are intending to freeze or reheat this gumbo, add filé only to the portion about to be served. Add approximately 1 1/2 teaspoons of filé to 4 cups of liquid.