I am in the middle of a book tour. This is the 10th time in 12 years that I have crisscrossed the state signing books at independent bookstores and gift shops.
Since this is a children’s book I have also been visiting elementary schools and libraries. It has been a blast and I love reading to kids so much that I might do another children’s book in the future. Though I’ll have to put it in the pipeline as Wyatt Waters and I are just beginning to work on a new collaborative coffee table cookbook about Mississippi.
So while I am touring the state on this book tour and beginning to work on the new project that covers the entire state of Mississippi I have been thinking a lot lately about where I live and my home state.
I love Mississippi. I was born here. I will die here. When I meet people from the northeastern part of the United States or the West Coast, they might reply to those last statements with a smug, “Why?”
Morgan Freeman was once asked in an interview: “You could live anywhere in the world. Why do you live in Mississippi?”
Freeman replied, “I live in Mississippi because I can live anywhere in the world.” A few years later he stated, “I’d live here for the food, alone.”
Mississippi is a great place to live and raise a family. We aren’t perfect, but no state is perfect, so I won’t dwell on the negative in this column. I am feeling grateful today and I want to focus on the things that make me proud to live in Mississippi.
I have a good friend who was born and raised in New York. He moved to my hometown of Hattiesburg (his wife’s hometown) to practice neurology. He was skeptical at first. He had bought into the stereotypical propaganda that we so often hear (and probably deserved at one time). It took about a year for him to warm up to the area. After four or five years he bought season tickets to Saints games. Not long after that he bought a truck and started hunting with his son. He has settled in. Today he is more than an expatriated New Yorker. He is a Mississippian. He loves it here.
There are thousands of stories like that in Mississippi. Sure, some leave. But those grass-is-always-greener types are rarely happy in one place for too long wherever they may be.
I love it here. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I am 70 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, home to the greatest seafood in the world. That’s not empty rhetoric. I have eaten seafood all over the world. For my money, Gulf oysters beat all Atlantic, Pacific and European varieties so clearly that it’s not even a contest. The shrimp are better. The fish is better, and we have crawfish season in the marshes, too.
I am a food guy. The people who live in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco have to deal with cost of living that is double, triple, or quadruple to what we have here, yet I live 90 minutes— a big-city commute— from one of the top four restaurant cities in the country.
The Pascagoula River Basin— where I spent my youth fishing, swimming, and water skiing— is the largest free-flowing river system remaining in the lower 48 states. It drains an area of about 8,800 square miles and is filled with all manner of vegetation, wildlife and exotic species of birds.
The Mississippi Delta is rich with farming and hunting. The hill country is steeped in tradition. The river towns have their own character and the central section of the state is diverse and home to world-class entrepreneurs and businesses.
I once had a conversation with a group of very cosmopolitan Italians from Milan. We were sitting in a trattoria in Tuscany. They were mesmerized as I described my home state. We were sitting in one of the more picturesque places on the planet, and even though they came from one of the most sophisticated cities in Europe, and the capital of fashion in Italy, they fell in love with Mississippi
I told them that I grew up just north of New Orleans where jazz was invented and just south of the Mississippi Delta where the blues were invented. Then I told them that if you believe Muddy Waters when he sang, “The blues had a baby and they named the baby rock and roll.” (and I do), then I live in the state that invented rock and roll. As a matter of fact, in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, it states that the first rock and roll note ever recorded was done so in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Country music was invented 90 miles to the northeast in Meridian.
Music, food, art, literature— at this time when we are all asked to be grateful for something, I am grateful that I live in Mississippi.
1 Tbl Bacon grease or oil
1 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 tsp Salt
2 cups Milk
2 cups Chicken broth
1 cup Grits
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Hot Sauce
8 oz Sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz Cream cheese
Melt bacon grease over low heat in a 1 1/2-quart sauce pot. Add garlic and salt and cook for one to two minutes being careful not to brown the garlic. Add milk and broth and increase heat. Bring to a simmer and slowly pour in grits. Lower heat and cook grits for 15 minutes, stirring often.
Add remaining ingredients and stir until cheeses are melted. Serve immediately.
Yield: 8 servings