Reflections on a Research Trip Through Mississippi
Andrew P. Haley
March 14, 2015
For the past week, I have been traveling highways, byroads, and dirt paths in Mississippi, skipping from town to town and public library to public library, searching for stories about twentieth-century Mississippi for the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project.
Research trips are often carefully designed affairs. You arrive at an archive with a list of archival boxes to view, a fresh notebook, and, if you’re me, the names of the best local coffee shops. For this trip, I had the notebook (or, more accurately, my iPad) and a Google map with upside teardrops marking the towns where community cookbooks had been published. A squiggly line on the map laid out the route for the first three days of my six-day road trip. It was an optimistic schedule that changed as soon as I discovered there were no public restrooms anywhere near Satartia.
The Mississippi Community Cookbook Project, funded with a startup grant from the College of Arts & Letters at The University of Southern Mississippi and supported by a partnership with McCain Library and Archives, is telling the story of Mississippi by collecting, digitizing, and describing community cookbooks published in the Magnolia State between 1900 and 1970. I set out on this trip to discover enough about each town’s history so that I, or a student in my American Studies/History food studies class, could write an account of these communities for this website. (Current projects: Coahoma and Calhoun City.)
Telling the history of a town by peaking through the kitchen window is a quirky endeavor, one grounded in scholarship, but also a leap of faith. The cookbooks themselves rarely tell the full story; they were practical guides, not memoirs, but over the course of the past year, my confidence in the project has grown. With only one exception, the cookbooks that I and my students examined have unlocked stories of Mississippi communities whose histories need retelling and interpretation, especially online where many of these towns have garnered not much more than a Wikipedia page listing cardinal coordinates and data from the 2000 census. By grounding these essays in community cookbooks, we are able to do more. We are telling stories of local foodways (discovering, for example, that the thick slices of onion on a soul food buffet’s burgers in Calhoun City continue the tradition of a now defunct white-owned restaurant that thrived on the town square during World War II), but we are also telling the story of the towns themselves and how economic and social changes in the twentieth century crafted communities.
Perhaps I should not have started in Columbia—it was too close to home—but there was something satisfying about starting at the first virtual pin on my map. From there it was a short trip to McComb, where I discovered a curious school play in verse whose racism was so unconscious it physically startled me, and then to the patrician river town of Monticello, and on to Crystal Springs where I arrived too late in the afternoon to get into the library and too early in the week to find a good restaurant. (Note to self: nothing is open on Mondays in Mississippi.) Traveling the back roads of Mississippi requires that you stay at motels not listed in any travel guide or that you carefully map things out so you end your day in a larger city. I would generally end up doing the first, but day one ended in Vicksburg at an Econolodge.
The next three days, one day more than I had planned, were spent in Delta towns. The Delta starts off wondrously flat and quickly becomes monotonously flat. Evening rains had filled the fresh furrows of cotton fields, which, during brief glints of sunlight on overcast days, gleamed like the steel strings on a guitar. In the more wooded areas around the Delta National Forest, green bayous gave way to muddy rivers flowing freely into adjacent farms. At the start of the trip, each of these magical sights required a brief stop, but as each plantation stretched onward to the next, and muddy field followed muddy field, these sights soon registered little more than a quick glance, and certainly did not demand another photo that looked strikingly like the last. Satartia, although not much more than a single street with a few dozen houses, was prosperous with a busy general store and a post office that was never without a car, but Fitler, further to the west, had lost its village status and now survived as a private road. I spent a productive morning in Yazoo City’s beautiful old library, midday in Leland’s library, and a rushed hour before closing at Cleveland’s exceptional library that inspired a second visit the next day. In between, there were hours in the car racing against dusk to visit as many small towns as I could, before a night on a stiff mattress and the next morning’s hotel breakfast.
Over the course of three days in the Delta, I visited Ruleville and Shelby, Glendora and Tutweiler, Marks and Lambert, and spent some very productive time in the caged Mississippi reading room of the Clarksdale public library, but even as one town blurred into the next, the research I was conducting in libraries and the reality of life in the Delta towns I visited did not always fit comfortably together. In centennial commemorative guides and county histories from the mid-twentieth century, I encountered the ghosts of a Delta past whose racial myopia and local boosterism produced unbounded optimism. Even as many of these communities struggled with economic changes in the post-World War II era, residents imagined a rosy future. Some towns found ways to fulfill those promises. The “Golden Buckle of the Cotton Belt,” Clarksdale, may still be an important regional agricultural center, but it has forsaken an identity grounded in white cotton for tourism centered around black music. Cleveland has a university, and towns on the edge of the Delta like Batesville have the interstate. But many other communities—Glendora, Shelby, and, just north of Clarksdale, Coahoma—face wrenching poverty, graphically evidenced by decaying houses, abandoned railcars, and dirt roads. A mid-1960s report which borrowed its title from Lyndon Johnson’s “The War on Poverty” claimed that only 36% of the housing in Coahoma County was “sound,” and, today, despite the fact that former tenement shacks have been torn down (or fixed up to serve as “motels” for the tourists), it seems that there has been little improvement.
The last days of the trip took me from the Delta to the Hill Country east of route 55. I’m a northerner from a hillier part of the United States, and I found relief from the big skies and straight roads of the Delta in the rolling hills punctuated by grazing cattle and the twisting roads. Certainly, the journey was made more pleasant by the company—my wife Danielle joined me for the last leg of the journey—but I think it also reflected the Hill Country’s history. In areas where sharecropping was less prevalent, the lingering wealth of previous generations has served as a buffer against economic collapse, even as cotton farming has declined and valuable lumber has become scarcer. The costs of Mississippi’s long history of racial oppression are also less evident in towns like Coffeeville and Winona and Big Creek and Calhoun City. These are towns nestled between fields and forests and often splintered by rail lines that do not delineate racial boundaries as sharply as they once did. Nonetheless, these are not wealthy towns. As one woman told me, she reads about economic depressions coming and going in cities like New York and Chicago, but where she lives, the depression came and never went. But the populations of these communities (according to the those Wikipedia pages with the census data nicely laid out) earn more than those who live in the Delta and they hide their hardships more effectively.
The hill country brought more libraries and also more potholes, the latter ending our journey in Starkville where we are now holed up waiting for a mechanic to tell us why our steering wheel is jerking wildly to the right. Researchers collect sources, sort data, and then write, but while I wait impatiently for the car to be fixed and the 4,000 pages of new material I’ve collected to download to my computer via the hotel’s frustrating Wi-Fi connection, I have a little time to reflect on the journey.
What can community cookbooks, or history, for that matter, tell us about the optimistic past that filled my notebooks and the bedraggled present that filled my windshield? Rushed visits to towns I don’t really know, quick dinners at roadside barbeque joints, and brief stops at gas stations for cigarettes, Cokes, and fuel do not make me an expert on Mississippi’s past or its future. But between the libraries and the quickie marts, I encountered Mississippians who, somewhat surprisingly, embodied the same spirit of optimism as the cookbooks that I set out to study. There was the greying woman and her hard-of-hearing husband in Monticello who opened the county museum for me and who, although not natives of Monticello, have fought to preserve the town’s most remarkable building, a former school, and turn it into a reminder of the Monticello that was and promise of what it might be. There was the director of the Leland Chamber of Commerce who, spotting a stranger taking pictures, rushed from her office to regale me with the town’s history and recommend some local restaurants. There was the archivist at Delta State University who, inspired by a childhood friendship, petitioned the university for space and turned the third floor of the archives into a permanent exhibit about Chinese settlers in the Delta. There was the tree farmer in Winona whose office I mistook for a thrift shop that might have old cookbooks who shared his recollections of Winona’s past, and, when I asked about cookbooks, said, “You know who has a lot of old cookbooks? My wife,” and invited us to his home. His wife, friendly and full of fun, hauled out every community cookbook she had and, as I flipped through each and took pictures, enchanted us with stories about the cookbooks and the people whose recipes were included in them. And there was the library assistant in Calhoun City, a retried school cook, who when asked about the 1961 Calhoun City cookbook that inspired my trip to this remote town, proudly announced she had graduated in ‘61 and opened the library early the next day so we would have more time to talk about the deep friendships that develop when you go to school with the same people year after year.
The prospects of these towns is no better and perhaps even worse than it was in the mid-twentieth century, but despite economic depressions that never end, the sense of community that drew people together to share recipes, write cookbooks, and make a few dollars to rebuild a church felled by fire or take a class trip to Florida, survives. And if it does, then the cookbooks are as valuable as I imagined when I set out on my quest, because they are the best surviving evidence we have of what has sustained these communities during the turbulent twentieth century and what continues to make these towns places that people want to call home.
Andrew P. Haley, 2015
© 2014 The Mississippi Community Cookbook Project