Coahoma Woman's Club
Coahoma, Mississippi, 1952
Coahoma was founded in the 1880s as a stop on the Illinois Central railroad at a time when trains were replacing river ports as the means of moving agricultural goods through the Mississippi Delta.
It is located in the heart of the Delta, an area rich with cash crops, initially long staple cotton, but following passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act during the New Deal, beans, corn, and rice as well. Coahoma is about fifteen miles north of Clarksdale, the Coahoma County seat. An oft-repeated tale claims that the town was named Coahoma when a conductor tossed a placard with the county name “Coahoma” printed on it out the window of his engine and it was posted at the station.
Founding families such as the Hulls, Fants, Haynes, and Montroys built a hotel, saloon, general merchandise store, commissary, furniture store, and a school for white children. In the early twentieth century, these were supplemented at various times by three Chinese-American owned grocery stores. The center of town life was the railroad depot, which was used for dances and other community gatherings. But Mississippi floods and a fire in 1925 destroyed much of the early infrastructure.
In the 1940s, when Coahoma Cooking was first published, the town and surrounding areas were experiencing the first years of population decline. During World War II, African American plantation workers migrated north for industrial jobs, but county authorities confidently predicted the migrants would come back. “The return of large numbers of negroes after the war from northern industrial centers, where many have become adept in the use of machines, will provide additional labor," a 1944 report promised. "Large numbers of middle-aged men and women, semi-skilled, prefer to be employed in menial occupations locally rather than move from homes they have occupied for many years and from families they have reared.” Although many farm laborers did return home to Coahoma as the Chamber of Commerce predicted, the economics of planting cotton had changed and fewer jobs were available. During the war, cotton plantations industrialized, decreasing the need for field workers. The county estimated that cotton farming employed only three-quarters of the labor during the war as it had in the past. The jobs that remained in Coahoma were often unskilled and poorly paid. “Common labor” received 30 to 40 cents an hour and sharecroppers were urged to plant kitchen gardens and can foods so that they could “live-at-home” cheaply.
Coahoma’s small downtown grew in the 1950s even as the area’s population declined. As sharecroppers were evicted from their tenant shacks, they moved into town where it was easier for children to attend school. Trucks picked up day laborers to chop cotton at local farms like the Hull, Ralston and Fant plantations during the growing season. Schools remained closed in the fall so children could work and earn money to buy school clothes. Work in Coahoma, however, was increasingly hard to find.
Economic opportunities in Coahoma declined further in the 1960s and 1970s. As trucks replaced trains, the railroad became less important and the town’s depot was torn down. By the 1990s, the town consisted of a small department store, a couple of grocery stores, filling stations, and a cotton gin. The white population of the town, once a majority, had died off or left town, and Coahoma’s 350 residents were nearly all African Americans.
DID YOU KNOW: Tamales cut in one-half inch pieces wrapped in thin bacon and broiled are exotic served with cocktails. Try it!
Coahoma Cooking: Everyday and Sunday Too was first published in 1949 by the Coahoma Woman’s Club. The club, which served both the town and the region, was one of the most exclusive institutions in the county and its roster was drawn from the areas’ founding families including the Ralstons, Haynes and Montroys. Dorothy Ann Balow, the town’s postmaster, told Olive Jean Bailey in an interview conducted in the early 1990s, that the club regularly met in the Coahoma Community House on Moon Lake Road. The Community House, she recalled, was “built in 1920, generosity of James Edward Montroy, who provided the lot. Membership in the woman’s club was by invitation only, and included women not only from Coahoma, but also from Jonestown, Friars Point, and Lula.”
The club disbanded in late 1980s, but during its heyday in the 40s and 50s, it hosted luncheons, talks, and piano recitals where white Coahoma woman could socialize and sponsored a fashion show in Coahoma and a flower show in Clarksdale. The Coahoma’s Woman’s Club seems to have been especially active despite the town’s size, and one of its presidents, Mrs. Robert Ralston, was a candidate for leader of the state Federation of Woman’s Clubs in the 1920s.
"Tea is a time for putting on the dog with the Coahoma Woman’s Club ladies."Mrs. Marshall Vaught and five other prominent members of the club created Coahoma Cooking in 1949. (The copy linked here is the fifth printing from 1952.) It was written, as one passage suggests, not for a “lean and hungry” Cassius, but for the well-fed planter class and their wives. “Tea is a time for putting on the dog with the Coahoma Woman’s Club ladies. The tea may be given at the Community House honoring some guest of the club, a famous author, favorite speaker, noted botanist, or whosoever from the great world of celebrities. Or it may be merely an informal gathering at the home of one of the many members residing throughout the county. No matter what the occasion, great effort is made, and that not unsuccessfully, to present the very latest in glamorous tidbits and table decorations.”
The writers of the cookbook and their audience were families of means that employed African American servants to cook and clear. “When the ‘soup’s on’ signal is sounded by the turban headed figure in the dining room door, life is good whatever the price of cotton.” Ernestine Shaw was one of these cooks. She was born near Rich, Mississippi on a flower farm. When she was three the family moved to Coahoma so her father could work for the Will Graham Farming Company. At twelve, she went to work for the Grahams as a maid and laundress, and then later Mrs. Graham taught her to cook.
The cookbook features recipes for traditional southern dishes such as fried chicken, 1950s cocktail party fare such as caviar and egg, and rich deserts such as eight layer cake and Miss Annie Cage’s Tipsy pudding. Most of the recipes are organized into menus, including the Winter Buffet Breakfast, Pauline’s Yankee Guest’s Luncheon, and Bertha’s Moon Lake Summer. There is also a section on “Alfresco Entertaining” that includes Miss Blanche’s Favorite Garden Supper and, unexpectedly, a Mexican Mid-day Dinner. The menus are followed by a selection of recipes titled Special Recipes that apparently did not fit into the planned menus.
It is a rather unique cookbook. Community cookbooks usually print the name of the recipe’s author after each entry, but most of the recipes in Coahoma Cooking are unsigned. When the contributor is acknowledged, it is in the title of the recipe. The cookbook features recipes for Mrs. Wooton’s Jam Cake, Mrs. Vaught’s Paradise Pudding, and Mrs. Elmer Morgan’s Pecan Cake (and a brief acknowledgment in the back that credits the Creole Casserole to Dave and Rose Salomon and the Asparagus Mouse to Erline Robinson and the Friar Point club members.) This unique approach to crediting recipes was also seemingly extended to African American women. The use of first names suggests that black cooks, usually denied authorship in community cookbooks, authored at least some of the recipes. These recipes include Daisy’s Toasted Cheese Boxes, Fannie’s Mints, Ila’s Baking Powder Muffins, and Keesee’s Scalloped Oysters. (Men, curiously, also were addressed by their first names as in Robert’s Barbecued White Perch Supper.)
Although many of the recipes were not credited to specific women in the community, they appear to have been assembled by the editorial committee from recipes regularly served as luncheons and teas. However,while the recipes were all local, the illustrations were not. The cookbook borrowed some of its images from an Alabama cookbook, The Southern Cook Book of Fine Old Recipes, first published in 1935 that featured illustrations by H. Charles Kellum. Coahoma Cooks does not acknowledge Kellum, but rather credits all of the drawings to Don and Boots Ralston. As was the case in many Southern community cookbooks, and some northern as well, these illustrations and the snippets of poetry and music that accompanied them reflect prevailing racial stereotypes, including a romanticized view of black labor and plantation life. One of the borrowed Kellum illustrations was hand lettered with the caption “Unk’ Remus.” Another, an image of a black man driving a cart weighed down by his wife, has the typed caption “Gwine to Sherrard’s fo’ Miss Jerry’s Lunch,” a possible reference to the Sherard Plantation outside Clarksdale. Another illustration includes, as did the original Kellum drawing, a few lines from a song. The song was one of hundreds collected by Newman Ivey White for American Negro Folk-songs published in 1928. It was submitted to the Harvard study by an Auburn, Alabama woman in 1915.
Coahoma Revisited"It's nice for people that like it, but I wanted to come home."
Many of the postwar generation of African Americans who live in Coahoma had the opportunity to live elsewhere, but returned to the town out of love for the rural life. Typical was Hattie Braxton. “Coahoma is a great place for me. Even though it does not have all of the ‘livelihood’ that some other towns have but it’s just a place that I do love. I’ve lived in Monterey, California. I’ve lived in Chicago, Illinois, for about two and half years in the 1950s. It’s nice for people that like it but I wanted to come home. Now I go places . . . I have children in Wisconsin, Alabama, Colorado . . . but no place like Coahoma.”
Food continues to create community in Coahoma. Writing in the 1990s, Olive Jean Bailey described a typical potluck church supper in Coahoma. “This down-home feast featured fried chicken, dressing, cooked greens and pork, scalloped corn, biscuits, peach cobbler, and if you were lucky, a piece of Rosezellar Hampton’s sweet potato pie.”
Essay by Andrew P. Haley, USM
Olive Jean Bailey. Coahoma, Mississippi: A Little Town with a Million Friends. N.P.: Farrar & Associates, 2003.
James Meadow and the Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce. Clarksdale and Coahoma County, Mississippi: An Economic Survey. Clarksdale, Miss.: Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, 1944.
Linton Weeks. Clarksdale & Coahoma County: A History. Clarksdale, Miss.: Carnegie Public Library, 1982.
General Store in Coahoma during the 1897 Mississippi flood (1897), credited to Edward Faut in Linton Weeks, Clarksdale & Coahoma County, 1982, Columbia Family History Center, http://www.usgwarchives.net/ms/coahoma/photos/coahomam588nph.jpg.
Coahoma railroad depot (1894), J.P. Steinwinder Collection, http://www.msrailroads.com/Y&MV.htm. Courtesy of Mississippi Rails.
1 can Underwood’s Deviled Ham
½ cake Cream Cheese
Medium sized dill pickle
Mix ham and cheese thoroughly. Using an apple corer, cut the center from the dill pickle. Allow to drain. Stuff cavity with the ham-cheese mix. Chill thoroughly. Slice with sharp knife and serve as relish.
8 slices of white bread
2 c. grated cheese
1/3 c. butter
3 c. milk
1-1/3 t. salt
1/3 t. dry mustard
Spread bread with butter and cut each slice into 4 pieces. Alternative layers of cheese and break in baking dish so that the cheese in on top. Combine milk, eggs (slightly beaten) and seasonings. Pour mixture over cheese and bread. Bake in a slow oven (about 325 degrees) for approximately 40 minutes. This recipes serves 8 people.
(To be drunk on special occasions—and—sometimes on no occasion at all.)
6 oz. whole milk
1 t. sugar
2 lumps ice
1 jigger 86 proof whiskey
Shake well in cocktail shaker or Waring Blendor, if available. Pour into 8 ounce tumbler. Sprinkle grated nutmeg liberally over top and serve. This will make one serving, the second is very seldom needed.
(High-hat Meat Balls!)
3/4 lb. ground beef
1/4 ground pork
3 T. minced parsley
1 small onion, chopped fine
3 slices of white bread
1/2 c. hot milk
1 egg beaten
salt and pepper to taste
Cut crusts from bread and soak in hot milk. Make small balls and fry light brown in a small amount of fat.
2 c. tomato juice
1 T. Kitchen Bouquet
liquid from can of artichokes
Cook for a few minutes. Drop in browned meat balls and simmer 20 minutes. Add hearts of Artichokes just before serving.
© 2014 The Mississippi Community Cookbook Project