Food in the Mississippi Delta is as much an experience as it is a meal. Enjoy the food while listening to blues music, and feel the magic.
Back in 1967, Bobbie Gentry sang a song called “Mississippi Delta” with lyrics filled with references to food. “Have me a little that Johnny cake, a little bit of that apple pan dowdy…” she sang. Mississippi Delta food and music go together like hand and glove, or fishing line and crawdad holes, so this gem of a song captures the flavor (pun intended) of an area where so many cultural traditions are preserved. In fact, it could be said that it is a very special place, because it has preserved authenticity in things such as food and blues music, whereas so many other places have allowed modernization, upscale living, and international cultures to overwhelm traditional recipes. This is the land of fried tamales, Johnnycakes, pandowdy, fried catfish, BBQ, and other foods you can only call delicious.
MAKES YOUR EYES LIGHT UP
The Mississippi Delta is a large alluvial floodplain in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, northwestern Mississippi, and is not THE DELTA of the Mississippi River (located further south in Louisiana). The region has a varied cultural background that includes Germans, Sephardic Jews from countries in the Mediterranean Sea, Irish, Euro-Americans migrating from the east, and Africans brought as slaves, to name just a few influences on the regional food.
Unless you grew up in the deep South, there is a good chance you are not familiar with a Johnnycake or know what pandowdy refers to. A Johnnycake is also called a hoecake and is cornmeal flatbread that looks similar to a pancake. Legend has never quite sorted out why it is called a hoecake, but some say it was because they were once cooked on the blades of a garden hoe (hard to believe). Others say it is because the Johnnycake was cooked on a griddle called a hoe (more likely). To complicate matters further, it is also called ashcake and journey cake. The journey cake name reflects a time when the cornmeal cakes were durable food for slaves taken on long journeys. This gives them special meaning as a food of perseverance, so it is appropriate they are still eaten in a place like the magical Mississippi Delta.
What is pandowdy? A Southern grandmother could tell you what pandowdy is - and probably still bakes it in her modern kitchen. Pandowdy is a spiced apple pie cooked in a deep dish. The apples are sweetened with molasses, sugar or maple syrup and covered with a rich crust. The term “dowdy” means breaking up the crust with an eating utensil and pressing the crust pieces into the hot juices halfway through the baking cycle. Apple pandowdy was a favorite food in colonial times, and many of the early settlers in the South came from the New England states, so not surprisingly, the two regions share some food to this day. Dinah Shore sang, “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy makes your eyes light up and your tummy say ‘Howdy’” - and the song mentions New England.
Fried tamales were mentioned earlier, but they should not be confused with Mexican cuisine. Some say that tamales were introduced in this region in the 1920s by immigrant farmers who came to work the cotton fields. Other theories are that the pork rolled in cornmeal came from soldiers returning home from the Mexican-American War, while others say Native Americans were the original source. No two tamales are the same in the Mississippi Delta, adding an element of surprise wherever you decide to eat.
FOOD WITH HISTORY AND SOUL
Soul food is plentiful, and you would be hard put to find better tasting food anywhere. It includes fried catfish, fried chicken, and fried chicken gizzards, but the traditional side items are what add that Southern uniqueness. For example, collard greens or turnip greens cooked with pork neck bones turn a vegetable into a tasty delight. There are candied sweet potatoes, crowder peas, and buttermilk biscuits or cornmeal muffins. Hushpuppies are delicious when cooked the right way – crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Made with fried cornmeal, the name of the fritter is said to come from a time when cooks or outdoorsmen would fry a basic cornmeal mixture and toss some to the dogs to hush them up.
How about pig’s ear sandwiches? The use of pork parts such as neck bones and ears reflects a past in which farms and communities did not waste food in any form. Frankly, it would be good to resume that practice, because it would reduce food waste and lead to more affordable food products in an era of environmental and social responsibility.
Barbeque is another Mississippi Delta favorite – specifically grilled BBQ pork or pit-smoked whole hog, but it is impossible to name a particular barbeque sauce because there are so many versions. Everyone has a favorite – sweet or vinegary, both, or mild or hot. The BBQ sauce is what makes a particular BBQ meat distinctive, besides how the meat is cooked, of course.
You are not limited to pork, although it must be added that pork rules the oven and grill in the Mississippi Delta. However, you can obviously buy beef burgers and other beef foods. A slugburger is a depression-era food created to use up every animal part and is said to be a German immigrant’s recipe. Meat was stretched with potato flakes or potato flour because nothing was wasted. Very popular today, the slugburger is more often made with soy flour or soy grits.
TRADITIONAL COOKING AND CLUTTERED WALLS
The best way to eat authentic Mississippi Delta food when traveling is to find yourself an older diner or restaurant with cooks who retain the traditional recipes and cooking styles. The place will have older tables and chairs, bottles of barbeque sauce on tables, and napkin dispensers. The walls are inevitably cluttered with pictures of celebrities who have eaten there, framed newspaper and magazine clippings bragging about the food, and other items that may or may not have meaning to visitors.
Walking into a restaurant like this evokes a feeling of coming home. After your meal, and when you think you cannot possibly eat anything else, get ready for a slice of apple pandowdy or lemon icebox pie. It is the finishing touch on an unforgettable meal, and you just cannot say “no.”