Provence. Tuscany. Alsace. Szechuan.
When someone says “food region,” those are probably a few of the places that come to mind. But Decatur-based food writer Susan Puckett thinks chefs and foodies should add a new one to their lists: the Mississippi Delta.
Not many food lovers yet say the name of the state alongside terms like “terroir” and “regional delicacy,” but Puckett wants to expose readers to the singular traditions and recipes of an often overlooked region that she loves. She’s a Mississippi native, though not from the Delta itself. Having grown up in the capital, Jackson, she began to get to know the region when she was in college at Ole Miss during visits with a boyfriend who hailed from Greenwood, in the heart of the Delta.
“It was just an unforgettable experience, driving across the ridge line of hills that separates the Delta from the hill country,” Puckett recalls. “The land just goes completely flat.”
While there, through the boyfriend’s family, friends and relatives, she began to discover the great cooks and restaurants of the area; many had preserved old cooking traditions, and some even seemed frozen in time. “If you go to a restaurant, it’s like going to a friend’s house for dinner,” she explains. “The cooks are often self-taught, fantastic chefs, just preparing what sounds good to them that day and serving what they want to serve. With a lot of them, you get the sense they opened a restaurant just so they could have a big dinner party every night. When you travel there, you get to be a part of that.”
Puckett graduated from Ole Miss and got a job at The Jackson Clarion-Ledger. As a young journalist, she found herself drawn to feature stories about food traditions of the area, which started her on the food-writing path. She eventually became food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 19 years and is now a monthly food columnist for Atlanta Magazine. The recent publication of Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South (University of Georgia Press, 294 pages) marks a return to the region that was her first culinary love.
Classic Southern dishes have authentic and delicious iterations in the Delta, and these have prominent places in the new cookbook: Mississippi catfish, collard greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, sweet potatoes, okra and fried chicken are all included. But there are some surprises too. One of the most emblematic signature dishes of the region is the Mississippi hot tamale. At the turn of the last century, Mexican migrant workers came to work in the cotton fields, and they brought their food traditions with them, which they shared with African-American sharecroppers. The cigar-shaped, spiced tamales that resulted are unique to the area.
“They’re typically simmered instead of steamed, so they’re very moist,” says Puckett. “It’s very much an artisanal thing that’s passed down through generations. You’ll see them in mom-and-pop convenience stores or little tamale stands; in some cases they’re mobile, almost like a street food.”
Chinese immigrants over the years have also contributed to the region’s culture, and the book includes a recipe for collard greens stir-fried in garlic and oyster sauce.
It often explores the finer points of a simple food such as cornbread, which Puckett says is easy to get wrong if certain techniques aren’t followed. Her recipe for the Southern classic comes from the late Greenville native and famous Civil War historian Shelby Foote.
“There’s a lot of bad cornbread in the world, but this just nails it,” Puckett says. “It has no flour in it. It’s made with buttermilk. Just a touch of sugar heightens the sweet flavor of the corn.”
Recipes for popular Delta foods for social occasions, such as cheese straws and spiced pecans, come from vintage community cookbooks. And although it’s not a favorite of Puckett’s, she includes a curiosity: a recipe for sweet pickles made with Kool-Aid. “I’m not a big fan of sweet pickles, but my sister just loves them!”
Despite her affection for the Delta, keeping an accurate picture of its troubled history was important to her in writing the book, she says. “I didn’t want to do the ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’ treatment. When reading about the Delta, you’ll either see something very negative or you’ll see just this very polished version that makes everything prettier and more pristine than it really is. I wanted to show it for what it was.”
In Tallahatchie County, where she’d gone to write about pecan trees, she found herself contemplating and ultimately writing about the Emmett Till Highway, which memorializes the black Chicago teenager who was infamously murdered in Mississippi in 1955, supposedly for whistling at a white woman.
But what interests the author most is the way food can bring people together, and how the independent mom-and-pop places have kept certain traditions alive. And incidentally, it’s not entirely necessary to make a trip to the Delta to sample Delta-style food. When asked for metro Atlanta recommendations, Puckett suggests Carver’s Country Kitchen, Greenwood’s Restaurant on Green Street in Roswell, and Sweet Auburn Bread. She also gives a shout-out to a newer restaurant that respects history and tradition while giving them a new spin: H. Harper Station.
Clearly the Delta occupies a special place in her heart. This spring, for the first time, Puckett will teach a journalism class at her alma mater, in which students will travel to the Delta to collect information for some in-depth reporting about food habits and traditions of the area.
“The Delta is just this bottomless well that’s full of stories that resonate with people everywhere,” she observes. “It’s so multi-layered, and I just can’t wait to go dive back in again.”