Saturday, January 20, 2018

SEASONED SOUTHERN STYLE: Introduction to the Multicultural Influence of Delta Foodways

Free printable Antique Graphic ~via

One thing Northeast Arkansas Delta people have in common is their love of food. We came from different ethnic cultures, different states, and often had different attitudes about life. We attended various churches, came from diverse social backgrounds, or had different goals in life. . .But when it came to food, we were pretty much agreed. . .It didn't have to be gourmet from Julia Child's Cookbook. . .nor did it need to be plated 'fancy'. . .We wanted it to taste good and have plenty of it. . .And we boasted to others about the superior Southern cooks found in our little town of Dell.

Free Printable Antique Advertisement Borden's Milk from KNICK OF TIME @ knickoftime.netI would say the diversity of our foodways included multicultural cuisine. We might have a pot of gumbo (Louisiana influenced) for lunch one day. . .Beans, cornbread and greens (mostly African American influenced) the next. . .On Sundays roast venison (Native American influence) with Southern dressing cooked in the style of our ancestors.  From the Mexicans, who came seasonally to chop and pick cotton, we learned the art of making their spicy dishes. Once in a while, they would honor us in sending Daddy home with 'real' hot tamales. Although we borrowed spaghetti sauce recipes from our Northern friends, true to the South, we made it our own with spices such as chili powder and bay leaves. And some of us called that sauce 'Red Gravy'--a New Orleans term.
There is no doubt that Delta foodways are a blending of many cultures. In 2013, our friend Cindy Grisham* published an extraordinary book, The History of Arkansas Delta Food (see below). She had visited with us earlier in the year, interviewing me about the traditions my own family had passed down. I was honored that once the book was published, my family foodways  was a significant part of it. I thought that I might share just one excerpt, with Cindy's permission, of course. I think that this will help explain the basis of my concept of SEASONED SOUTHERN STYLE. . .and what has influenced the family recipes that I'll be sharing. Duncan spent years working as a costumed interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia before deciding to return home a few years ago. She and her husband, John Holt, came back to the family farm at Dell in northeast Mississippi Country (Arkansas). . .John was a veteran of Colonial Williamsburg, as well as a native of the Smithville region of Virginia, home of the famous Smithfield hams. Not content to give up their lives as historical interpreters, the two decided to return the farm back to its appearance during the 1930s, when it was the center of life for a number of cotton-growing families and life was slower and considerably different. . .
Today, they make their home in the old farm manager's house and have restored several old farm structures that they use to interpret life in the Delta of Arkansas during the Great Depression. Included in the collection is Smith's General Store, which Dru grew up shopping in and which now sits across the driveway from the house, furnished like it was during times gone by.
A food historian and interpreter, Dru said that her research leads her to believe that much of the tradition food eaten in northeast Arkansas is Native American, African, or French. The French controlled the Mississippi Valley early on, and their influence is felt not only in the food but also in place names like the L'Anguille and Cache Rivers and Bayou de View. Even the name of the state itself has French origins.
Dru grew up on the traditional food, learning to cook from her mother and grandmother. Although her grandmother, Alice Ruddle Magers, owned a copy of the White house Cook Book, which is among Dru's many treasures, the women cooked without assistance, the recipes having been committed to memory from years of preparation.
Her grandmother was schooled in the art of food preparation by her older half-sister, Emma Ellis Liggett, who raised the younger woman after the deaths of her parents. Emma Liggett operated a boarding house and dining room at the corner of Second and Jefferson Streets in Dell for many years, and family members reported that there would be lines of people into the street in the evenings as they waited to dine there. The train crews from the Jonesboro, Lake City& Eastern Railroad would even time their routes so they would be in Dell at dinner time each evening and could stop and eat one of Aunt Emma's meals. Emma later followed her husband, Will, to Poinsett Country, where she operated a boardinghouse on a houseboat on the St. Francis River.
Aunt Emma taught Grandmother Magers how to cook the variety of wild game that often made up the menu during Dru's childhood. Dru said that her dove was 'to die for.' Among the wild caught foods that graced the family table were fish, frogs (legs), and turtles from nearby Pemiscot Bayou or Big Lake. Hugh puppies were a usual side for the fish, and Dru said that every family has a different recipe that they guard closely.
The fish and game would be accompanied by another wild dish, poke sallet, a native plant also known as pokeweed. Poke sallet contains toxins that must be cooked away to make it safe to eat. Dru said that her family always cooked it twice, draining off the water both times, before frying it with bacon drippings. She said that it was generally served on a slab of cornbread with boiled eggs sliced over the top and potlikker poured on top of that. Now, if you are not familiar with poke sallet and you just have to try the Magers family recipe, then substitute spinach or another of the milder-flavored greens. It isn't worth the risk of life and limb. I gave it a try, though, and I must say that it was absolutely delicious.
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Dru said that meals in her home while growing up always included beans, corn, greens, turnips and the ever popular purple hull peas, which were eaten first in season or preserved for winter use. The family first put up the peas by canning but later switched to freezing when proper refrigeration was available, which preserved the fresh taste better.
Cornbread was the daily bread in her family, although her grandmother always made a batch of her special biscuits on Sunday. Almost every family had a garden, and at one time, the land that now almost exclusively grows cotton grew vegetables on a commercial basis. Nearby, Blytheville was once home to a Bush's cannery, and Dru said that many families grew a field of some type of vegetable to sell to them. There was a beet farm right outside Dell along the highway. She said you could always tell when they were canning greens at the factory because it would stink up the whole county.

The nearby Pemiscot Bayou was a source of protein due to the fish, frogs, and turtles. Wild game was also plentiful at the time. Another meat-centered meal that she says was very common in that area was baked bologna. A while stick of bologna would be basted with barbecue sauce or mustard, depending on the cook's preference, then baked brown, sliced and served. John said that it wasn't a dish that he had ever heard of back in Virginia but admitted to liking it a great deal.
Antique Graphics Wednesday - 1910 Gelatin AdvertisementDru had a few food preferences that her mother was not particularly happy about and did not like to indulge. The first was for head cheese (souse), which she loved and would beg her mother to buy for her at the same grocery store that now sits on her lawn. While her mother refused to treat her, Mr. Smith at the store would always get her attention and slip her a slice of it on a cracker.
She also loved a concoction called Rex Jelly, which she said was a berry-flavored creation that came in huge jars and cost very little. Mr. Smith would take orders in the mornings from the schoolchildren at both the black and white schools for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and he made them from that wonderful Rex Jelly. Dru unfortunately lived in town and had to go home for lunch every day and so was denied her treat, much to her dismay. . .

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I want to thank Cindy for helping to preserve the history of our Delta foodways. As far as I know, there are no other books highlighting this subject about Northeast Arkansas. I hope she'll write more in the future. . .We need people like her so that our local history isn't lost forever.
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I'll be back soon with new. . .yet vintage. . .recipes from my family and the Delta, as well as more insights into the development of our common foodways.

Of course, you'll want to read more of Cindy's* book. She features many others of the Delta, as well as recipes for old favorites such as Chocolate Gravy, Hominy, Cherokee Succotash, Arkansas Cole Slaw, Poke Sallat and Eggs, Tomato Gravy, and more. . .
Up and down the Arkansas Delta, food tells a story. Whether the time Bill Clinton nearly died on the way to a coon dinner or the connections made over biscuits and gravy or the more common chicken and dumpling feuds, the area is no stranger to history. One of America's last frontiers, it was settled in the late nineteenth century by a rough-and-tumble collection of timber men, sharecroppers and entrepreneurs from all over the world who embraced the traditional foodways and added their own twists. Today, the Arkansas Delta is the nation's largest producer of rice and adds other crops like catfish and sweet potatoes. Join author Cindy Grisham* for this delicious look into Delta cuisine.
*Dr. Cindy Grisham is a historian living in Benton, Arkansas, and is the former interpreter for the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum and the Parkin Archeological State Park. A native of the Missouri Ozarks, Dr. Grisham earned an MA and PhD in Heritage Studies from Arkansas State, as well as an additional MA in political science.

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